Faithfulness Without Adherence: White Fang (2018)

This review is part of coverage for the 2018 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

The winding story of a wild wolf-dog that endures multiple hardships and discovers civilization, Jack London’s White Fang is a vivid and compelling adventure practically made for film. But adapting London is a challenge in this age, given his starkly racist views—they may not have been prevalent in this particular novel, but they still permeate his legacy. Director Alexandre Espigare’s 2018 White Fang is a visually rich 3DCG-animated feature-length interpretation aims for a spiritually faithful yet more sensitive version of London’s narrative to notable effect.

I want to be clear that I did not go into the film with a clear memory of the novel or any previous adaptations, and at first sought to enjoy it strictly as a children’s animated movie. In that respect, it succeeds. The animation, resembling somewhere between an oil painting and wood carvings, is consistently beautiful. Any visual hiccups are fairly minor and do not detract from the overall presentation. The subject matter is prone to violence, but the violence is given context and is presented respectfully without glorifying carnage.

But when looking back at the original novel and comparing, it’s clear that this film takes great pains to update the narrative to emphasize the positive aspects of cultural exchange without making it a one-way street. White Fang’s time in the wild with its mother shows a strong familial bond that does not fade away as it does in London’s book. Human characters are shown in all lights, but it is largely kindness and good will that stay with White Fang. At the same time, White Fang does not “progress” from “savage” to “civilized,” but harnesses aspects of both his origins in the wild and his experience with other species in order to survive.

Overall, the 2018 White Fang is a smart and respectful update to the original that adapts to the times. It’s more culturally considerate, with a message that soundly goes against the modernist/enlightenment push that can be interpreted from the novel. Yet it’s still a thrilling and moving narrative that embraces the awe and terror of nature and humankind alike, never faltering as a classic story.

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