No. 24: Never Cry Wolf

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

Amazingly, this is just the third film on this list so far that I had already seen before I began this project (which is exactly why I started this journey in the first place) after The Rescuers and A Christmas Story. I watched Never Cry Wolf back in middle school as part of a science project, presumably about wolves although the only thing I could tell you about the movie for years until now was that it featured quite a bit of footage of the male lead’s butt.

Which brings me to why this film, which most people probably haven’t heard of, is arguably one of the most important and influential titles on this countdown. Despite having no big name stars, no flashy special effects, no romance, no explosions and none of the other easily marketable features of a typical 1983 blockbuster, Never Cry Wolf hauled in $29.6 million without ever playing on more than 540 screens at its widest release.

What exactly grabbed the attention of audiences is still a bit unclear. It opened in competition with runaway hits like Terms of Endearment and The Big Chill but still managed to grab enough of the teen and adult audience to pull off a respectable haul. Critics loved the film almost unanimously from the beginning, earning an emphatic two thumbs up from Siskel and Ebert along with a number of other major critics (The New York Times’ Vincent Canby hated it but as I’ve discovered from this project, Canby sounded like he hated almost every movie he saw).

The commercial and critical success of Never Cry Wolf helped spur on one of the biggest studio moves of the 1980s, Disney’s decision to get into business of making movies for grown-ups. Walt Disney Pictures had already flirted with the idea of slightly more adult-oriented material with movies like Take Down, The Black Hole and Tron with mixed reactions in each case. While many of Disney’s PG-releases were critically praised, they also took their share of lumps from parents who believed the Disney label should not associate itself with material unsuitable for a young audience.

Disney took a slightly different approach with Never Cry Wolf, leaving their company logo off most of the marketing materials (see the included poster) so as not to overly emphasize the Disney brand. While the movie does contain some nudity and bad language, none of it seems gratuitous or unnecessary in context, which is probably why Never Cry Wolf served as the positive counterpart to Disney’s other adult-oriented experiment in 1983, the critically panned and parent-enraging Trenchcoat. The combination of Never Cry Wolf‘s success and the PR nightmare caused by Trenchcoat seemed to be the final push Disney needed to spin off its own separate label made specifically for adult-themed films, Touchstone Pictures, which launched the next year.

As for the movie itself, director Carol Ballard (a Lucas/Coppola disciple) tells the story of a biologist in the 1940s who takes on the assignment of studying arctic wolves in Alaska to determine whether or not they were the cause of a big drop in the caribou population. At the time, no one had ever seen a wolf hunt and kill a caribou and before declaring all out war on the species, the government was looking for confirmation from a scientist. From that premise, the film takes a turn into part nature documentary, part character study as the scientist (played by Charles Martin Smith) narrates his thoughts as he works alone in the wilderness for months with nothing but wolves and mice to keep him company.

There’s an interesting appeal to the early part of the film very similar to Robert Zemeckis’ Castaway in that our hero is dropped into the middle of an unfamiliar environment with very few instructions or supplies. The movie takes its time moving forward from here, allowing us to imagine what we would do in the same situation.

The story progresses from harsh and brutal winter to a springtime setting that truly shows off the natural beauty of the Alaskan and Canadian countryside where the film was shot, particularly in a series of stunning crane shots that follow Smith as he creeps through the hillside spying on a caribou herd.

In addition to the amazing, nature documentary-quality cinematography (which by the way took two years of filming), the film won an Oscar for its sound design, another feature that’s typically a big point of emphasis for nature documentaries. Of particular note would be the terrifically disgusting sound effects that accompany the infamous mouse eating sequence in the film.

While Charles Martin Smith does an admirable job of wearing his emotions on his face with almost no dialog for the length of the film, a nice pair of bookend scenes by Brian Dennehy (seen earlier in this series in Gorky Park) give us a nice entrance and exit out of and back into the world of man. Dennehy plays a larger than life pilot responsible for dropping off and picking up Smith and is a perfect contrast to Smith’s meek, mousey nerd.

And yes, just as I remembered from my childhood, there’s about 20 minutes worth of Charles Martin Smith running bare-assed through the prairie as he chases alongside a pack of wolves hunting the weakest and sickliest of the caribou herd. It’s a bit of a trippy sequence with plenty of frenetic editing and the suggestion that Smith has “become one” with the pack but in context, it’s an important emotional moment in the film and is the perfect example of what Disney was hoping to accomplish with the Touchstone label: creating genuinely relevant and artistically compelling film moments that for whatever reason just weren’t suitable for kids.

What I like most about Never Cry Wolf is that while it’s certainly a film about nature and animals, it never overly anthropomorphizes the creatures. Yes, the wolves are shown to be social creatures with families and relationships and yes, issues about the exploitation of the environment by man are brought up but none of these points are overplayed in the way so many other films (including films from Disney) so often do. This is a movie that lets the facts and details convey its environmentalist message on their own without any condescending and preachy speeches.

Again, I’m a bit baffled as to exactly how this movie was able to round up almost $30 million worth of business but when it comes to entertainment value and unique visuals, this movie delivers like any spectacular blockbuster should. The sheer technical achievement and patience required to film wild, untrained animals in a way that fits into a specific storyline is an impressive (not to mention dangerous) feat that holds up as impressive even today.

Next Up: We stay with the Mouse House as I review Disney’s 1983 re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.