‘Call of The Wild’ is just the latest in a long movie tradition
Disney has been using dogs in its material since Uncle Walt first sketched Pluto and Goofy. Its animated canon features classics like The Fox and the Hound, One Hundred and One Dalmatians and Lady and the Tramp. In addition to older classics like Old Yeller, its live-action canon includes films that blended documentary and scripted stories, like The Incredible Journey and Disney’s nature documentary series.
But Disney has also managed to corner the market on a very specific sub-genre: The snow dog movie. This week’s release of Call of the Wild is just the latest example of a tradition that started in 1961 with the “nature documentary” Nikki, Wild Dog of the North.
The Disney Snow Dog Movies listed below have a few hallmarks. True stories provided the basis for them, or at least inspired them. All are live-action, take place in Arctic or cold locations, use tragedy and/or the absence of the protagonist’s parent as an inciting incident, and all are family-friendly. And, with the exception of Call of the Wild, all of the dogs on screen are real dogs.
Nikki, Wild Dog of the North (1961)
This semi-scripted TV special about a half-wolf, half-dog separated from her owner in the Yukon during the gold rush aired as a “nature documentary.” In reality, the filmmakers simply used real animals in real situations to tell a scripted tale.
Nikki the wolfdog battles bears, the elements, and other harsh realities of the Great White North on her way back to her owner. The hybrid real/scripted feel is an extension of the technique used on Disney’s 1958 Arctic Circle nature doc White Wilderness. That “documentary” featured a lot of staged shots filmed to be real, including the infamous sequence of lemmings allegedly committing mass suicide.
While Nikki features the titular dog interacting with animals in real life, the filmmakers framed it as a story and not an undeniable fact.
The Journey of Natty Gann (1985)
The Journey of Natty Gann is not set in the Arctic, but it does feature a Hero’s Journey with a young girl and a wolfdog on their way to the Pacific Northwest. Here, we see the beginnings of the fully fictional Disney Snow Dog Movie. It’s not based on a true story, but it takes place during the Great Depression. Natty (Meredith Salenger) is left in Chicago while her dad goes to the PNW to look for work. Natty decides to run away and follow him. On her journey, she meets Wolf, who protects her on her way to the outer rim of the Arctic.
White Fang (1991)
Disney adapted Jack London’s classic tale of survival and Gold Rush human/dog friendship in 1991, kicking off the biggest era for the Disney Snow Dog Movie. Jack (Ethan Hawke) travels to the Yukon to find his dead father’s gold mining claim, and meets White Fang on his way and learns what it means to be a man. It was set and filmed in Alaska. Jed, a Canadian wolf-Alaskan Malamute hybrid, played White Fang (he also played Wolf in Natty Gann and the dog in The Thing). This wasn’t the first White Fang adaptation, and it wouldn’t be the last, but it is the definitive one. This movie was successful enough that it got a direct-to-video sequel, Myth of the White Wolf, also starring Jed. It was only a matter of time before Disney (well, technically 20th Century) adapted London’s other Arctic dog film, Call of the Wild.
Iron Will (1994)
It’s 1917. Will Stoneman (Mackenzie Astin) must take care of the family farm after his father dies. With winter coming up and no money to maintain the land, he decides to continue his father’s legacy as a dog musher and enters a cross-country sled dog race for the $10,000 prize. His Native American spirit guide Ned Dodd (August Schellenberg) trains him, and his lead dog Gus aids him as he goes on a treacherous race against other mushers who try to sabotage him. But all of those obstacles are no match for Will’s, uh, iron will, as he conquers his fear of the thing that killed his father with the help of his snow dogs. If that’s not the epitome of a Disney Snow Dog Movie, I don’t know what is.
Snow Dogs (2002)
At last, a comedy! Snow Dogs tells the tale of Ted Brooks (Cuba Gooding, Jr.). He’s a black Miami dentist who learns that he has inherited Alaskan land and a team of sled dogs from his biological mother, who just died. He travels to the fictional backwoods village of Tolketna, Alaska to claim his inheritance. While there, he discovers his biological father is a crotchety, white, old mountain man named Thunder Jack (James Coburn). After they put aside their differences and reunite, Thunder Jack teaches Ted how to mush.
Aside from the familial plot, Snow Dogs is the weirdest Disney Snow Dog Movie of the bunch. There’s not one, but two hallucinatory scenes where huskies speak to Ted on the beach. A whole plot point revolves around whether or not Ted will bite a disobedient dog on the ear. Sisqó is a supporting character and the movie repeatedly plays the inescapable Baha Men song Who Let the Dogs Out for laughs. White Fang, this ain’t.
Eight Below (2006)
The filmmakers were technically correct when they slapped “based on a true story” on Eight Below. Yes, a 1958 Japanese expedition to Antarctica really happened. Yes, those explorers really did have to leave eight dogs behind with an intention to rescue them once weather conditions improved. But Eight Below is primarily based on Antarctica, a fictional 1983 Japanese film about that 1958 expedition that fills in the gaps on how the dogs survived for 11 months in the wild.
The Disney version of this film makes the Japanese explorers American and sets the expedition in the present-day. Jerry Shepard (Paul Walker, at the height of his The Fast and the Furious powers) is the lead explorer, who will stop at nothing to bring his dogs home. It also features August Schellenberg (Iron Will) and Moon Bloodgood (Snow Dogs), two veterans of the genre. Eight Below is the best of the Disney Snow Dog Movies from the early 2000s and was the most critically acclaimed. It also brought in almost $82 million domestically.
Finally, there’s Togo, the most recent entry into the Disney Snow Dog Movie canon. It was one of the first original movies to premiere on Disney+ after the streaming service’s launch.
Balto may have gotten all the credit for arriving to Nome with Diptheria medicine in 1925, but it was actually Leonhard Seppala (Willem Dafoe) and his Siberian Husky dog Togo who covered the most treacherous terrain with the medicine. The movie flashes back and forth from the 1925 Serum Run to when Seppala raised Togo from a runt into a champion sled dog.
Disney used real dogs for all of the scenes, and the way director/cinematographer Ericson Core shoots the film, with lush, vibrant lighting for the flashbacks and cold, chilly blues for the Serum Run, makes it one of the best-looking of all of Disney’s Snow Dog Movies. No streaming data is available on how many have seen it, but had this been a theatrical release it probably would have performed well at the box office.
The five theatrically-released films listed above all turned profits and combined for a total of $228.3 million at the box office. This Friday, Harrison Ford and a CGI-motion capture St. Bernard/Scotch Shepherd dog mix named Buck look to continue Disney’s trend of successful Snow Dog Movies. The genre is incredibly niche, but it’s been a safe bet for Disney before, and I expect we’ll see more of them as 20th Century and Disney+ continue to grow.