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‘White Fang’ (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 19, 1991

In Walt Disney's "White Fang," the silken-coated Jed brings both a dogged persistence and the range of a canine Barrymore to his eponymous role. Jed's unleashed intensity drives this action-adventure directed by "Blue Lagoon's" own Randall Kleiser from a screenplay based on Jack London's classic novel.

Set in Alaska during the Gold Rush, it is a sturdily written coming-of-age story about both the wild half-wolf, half-dog White Fang and a teenage prospector, Jack Conroy. Ethan Hawke of "Dead Poets Society" is Jack, a naive but resourceful youth who arrives in the Klondike to work his late father's claim. Armed with his father's maps, he manages to persuade a crusty guide, Alex Larson (Klaus Maria Brandauer), to take him to the claim site. What an Austrian is doing here is never cleared up.

As they dog-sled through the frigid wastes, the recently orphaned White Fang first crosses their path. Boy and wolf-dog look deeply into each other's eyes before going their own ways. It is a telegraphed moment.

"White Fang" is a love story really, a case of boy meets dog, loses dog and gets dog back. Adapted for the screen by Nick Thiel and Jeanne Rosenberg, this easily understood yarn should appeal primarily to boys who still think girls are yucky. Though he's probably about 19, Jack is a bit repressed and remains largely intimidated by the females of the region -- except for Alex's girlfriend (Susan Hogan), who with Alex becomes a surrogate parent to Jack.

White Fang, meanwhile, has been captured by the trashy Beauty Smith (James Remar) -- life ain't easy for a boy named Beauty -- a scalawag who pits the poor, abused beast against other unfortunate curs in illegal dog fights. Just when it looks like curtains for the animal, Jack bravely rescues him and patiently teaches him to trust again. And that isn't the half of it -- would that it were.

Though slow and overlong, the movie is at least scenic family fare. Even in the fights and the bunny hunts, the animals are obviously not in any real danger, and the movie is nowhere near as scary as "The Bear," whose star, Bart, by the way, has a ripsnorting cameo role here. "White Fang" is fetching enough for a rating of 2 1/2 kibbles.

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