Tyler (Charles Martin Smith) was sent out to study the wolves of the Canadian Arctic because although nobody had seen them do it, it was suspected that the animals were responsible for the dwindling population of caribou in the area, so much so that the caribou were now an endangered species. Tyler was sent out in late winter with enough supplies to last most of the year along with his scientific equipment, but the investigation would prove more difficult than he or his superiors had anticipated: there was the problem of getting out to the wilderness, for a start...
If you're one of those film fans who thoroughly enjoys seeing character actors getting their chance to shine with a rare lead role, however briefly, then Never Cry Wolf is one of those films you should treasure. Here it was Smith seizing his opportunities as he is the only actor onscreen for a lot of the running time, and despite not having anyone to act against for long stretches, he proved himself perfectly capable of carrying a movie. It was based on the nature-loving bestseller by Farley Mowat and although it may have taken a few liberties as indeed the author was accused of taking in his research, the film nevertheless has an integrity to it.
An integrity that many of director Carroll Ballard's best films feature, and make no mistake, this was one of his finest achievements in a career that had too few instalments. The reason for that was that he took meticulous care to make his films just right, and this one was three years in the creation, two years of that being taken up with shooting. The photography, as expected, is superb and even though trained wolves were used as opposed to tracking down wild ones (now that would have taken a while) you never lapse into thinking you are watching animals perform tricks for the camera.
This was unusual because Never Cry Wolf was a Disney movie and clearly appeared as that brand was looking to expand its horizons for the eighties. Previously, the company's natural history films had been afflicted with hokey narration and obviously gimmicky scenes, yet here a more authentic approach was used, to far greater effect. This is an adventure yarn first and foremost, so when Tyler is dropped off on a frozen lake by pilot Brian Dennehy, the last man he will converse with for months, an eerie silence descends and the significance of what he is attempting hits home.
As it turns out, Tyler would have got nowhere fast if it had not been for a native tribesman saving him from the ice and giving him shelter, but he does not hang around for thanks. Soon Tyler has recovered and has set up camp where he can watch a wolf go about its routine, although when the beast notices him he ends up being the subject of just as much scrutiny. As the days and months go by, Tyler discover the wolves supplement their diet through eating small rodents, something he uses as the basis for an experiment on himself: yes, he eats mice. The theme is not simply "look after the animals", but how the observer can become a participant by the mere act of observing, and if the film threatens to go off the rails when it tries for a mystical tone later on, it remains an absorbing and novel gem of the back to nature genre. Music by Mark Isham.