By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)
Opening in IMAX theaters is the latest film by acclaimed director Jean Jacques Annaud (Quest for Fire, The Bear), and it is a film that looks absolutely gorgeous in the massive screen format. The beautiful cinematography by Jean-Marie Drejou and the lush score by recently deceased composer James Horner are both solid reasons to see this film at an IMAX theater. The story, on the other hand, doesn’t offer audiences anything dynamically different. That and some poor storytelling choices have kept me from giving this movie a higher rating. Nevertheless, it is definitely worth a watch.
Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Jiang Rong, Wolf Totem tells the story of a Chinese soldier in the late 1960s who befriends and raises an orphan wolf cub while stationed in Mongolia. Assigned to work with Mongolian herders Chen Zhen (Shaofeng Feng) has a fascination with not only their culture, but also with the wolves that often threaten their lives and the lives of the animals they are raising. With orders to kill all the wolf cubs in the area, Chen Zhen takes it upon himself to rescue a cub and raise it as a pet. Even though a strong bond forms between the man and his animal, secretly raising a wild animal against orders has some serious consequences.
Even though the movie has some lovely messages about wildlife and the environment, some of the beats feel completely lifted from Dances With Wolves. Annaud obviously has much love for wildlife and naturalism. However, his collaboration with writers John Collee, Alain Godard, and Lu Wei have produced a screenplay that strays from their intended messages. The movie preaches about maintaining respect for the natural state of things, but then has moments in the film that feel so strongly contrived that they go into some corny and cheesy territory for the sake of creating drama. Also, the development of the wolf characters sometimes comes across as slightly cartoonish and immature, which feels way out of place in a movie that aspires to present scenarios realistically. On the positive side, Annaud does counter the silly moments with some unflinchingly powerful and emotional scenes that will leave audiences breathless and possibly in tears. The cast members offer solid work which does help maintain the integrity of the production.
What also really impressed me is the outstanding performances the director and his animal trainers get out of the wolves and other animals in the film. The wolves may have their cartoonish and melodramatic moments, but the hard work of the trainers does pay off in the more genuine scenes. This movie does have its issues, but the positives do manage to save it overall. I don’t often recommend movies with these flaws for theatrical viewing, but I have to say the gorgeous look of the film and the extraordinary music composed by James Horner is tailor-made for IMAX viewing. If one has the money to cough up for an IMAX ticket, this movie is worth it for a one-time experience. The story’s problems, however, do not make for highly enjoyable subsequent viewings.