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'Iron Will'

By David Mills
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 15, 1994


Charles Haid
Mackenzie Astin;
Kevin Spacey;
David Ogden Stiers;
August Schellenberg;
Brian Cox;
Penelope Windust
Parental guidance suggested

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In between its hokey setup and its overwrought climax, Disney's dog-sledding adventure "Iron Will" is brisk and involving and surprisingly adult, its cinematic strength drawn mainly from the beauty of panting teams of huskies muscling their way across snowy landscapes. Which is a sight you can never grow tired of.

The audience is prepared for tough sledding of a different kind, however, at the movie's beginning. Mackenzie Astin plays the upright son of upright South Dakota farm folk around 1917. His name verily drips with dime store symbolism: Will Stoneman. Will's father wants him to go off to college; Will worries that his place is with his family. "Your place," Dad tells him, "is where your dreams are."

Dad is just full of this sap, it turns out. "If you want something, you gotta go out and grab it," he tells Will. "Don't let fear stand in the way of your dreams, son."

All of this life wisdom doesn't help the old gasbag when his sled falls through thin ice and he drowns like a rock. Will takes the loss hard and decides to enter a 500-mile dog sled race from Winnipeg to St. Paul -- not just for the $10,000 grand prize, which would finance his education and save the now-threatened family farm, but for Dad.

As Will trains for the arduous contest, we must endure some more feel-good hooey from his father's faithful Indian friend, a source (of course) of mystical insights. "Trust the dogs. Trust yourself," he says.

To the credit of actor-turned-director Charles Haid (best known as Renko on "Hill Street Blues"), this foundation is laid quickly, then it's off to the races. Arrayed against Will are a burly lot of veteran mushers -- Norwegians, Icelanders, Canadians, Native Americans and one cutthroat Swede named Borg (George Gerdes). Haid wonderfully transmits a sense of the speed and power of a dog team in action, with men holding fast to their whooshing sleds, bouncing through hilly terrain as if in dune buggies, sometimes tipping over and being dragged helplessly, painfully across the snow. There are cracking, scabby lips and blue fingers. We accept the hyped-up conflict between Will and the dastardly, whip-wielding Borg because we are thoroughly convinced of the story's physical authenticity, if not its emotional authenticity.

Alas, since it's a Walt Disney picture, there's also an attempt to anthropomorphize an animal -- in this case Gus (Beau), Will's pale-eyed lead dog. Early on, Will strives to earn Gus's "respect," the dog having been trained by his father. Throughout the movie, Gus barks and gazes and behaves in ways that indicate a highly evolved intelligence. Which, no doubt, will appeal to the youngsters.

Screenwriters John Michael Hayes, Djordje Milicevic and Jeff Arch have also devised a parallel story that may bore kids but that enriches "Iron Will" for adults. Inside a luxurious steam locomotive owned by the railroad baron who's sponsoring the race, we glimpse the lifestyle of the rich and flabby, and get a flavor of the 1917 equivalent of a media circus. Fun-loving Kevin Spacey is perfectly cast as Harry Kingsley, a jaded "yellow journalist" who greedily seizes upon Will's saga as a potential circulation-booster, but who becomes a true believer as Will pours on the gumption.

The outcome of the race is never in doubt, but that doesn't prevent the filmmakers from engaging in a bit of melodramatic overkill at the finish line. Still, it's a fine ride.

"Iron Will" is rated PG and contains violence and threats of violence.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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