The film has been credited as being responsible for the creation of Touchstone Pictures. At the time Walt Disney Pictures, then under the guidance of Walt Disney's son-in-law Ron W. Miller, was experimenting with more mature plot material in its films and the following year started Touchstone Pictures.
The narration for the film was written by Charles Martin Smith, Eugene Corr, and Christina Luescher.
Tyler, a Canadian biologist, is assigned by his government to the “Lupine Project” to determine whether wolves are responsible for the depletion of the caribou population in the Arctic region. He arrives at a small town in the Yukon Territory and hires airplane pilot, gambler, and real estate tycoon “Rosie” Little to fly him 300 miles into the wilderness. Many of Tyler’s supplies are left behind because they weigh down the aircraft, although the biologist manages to sneak aboard twenty-four cases of beer. The harrowing flight concludes with Tyler standing alone on the frozen landscape as Rosie’s plane disappears in the distance. Tyler quickly discovers that many of his supplies, such as government paperwork, are useless, but he is able to construct a shelter from wooden crates. He requests help from a passing dogsled driver, who ignores him. Later, an elderly Inuit named Ootek finds Tyler unconscious in the snow, and transports him and his supplies to a thatched hut, then continues on his journey. While exploring his new environment, Tyler falls into a frozen lake and saves himself by puncturing the ice on the surface with the barrel of his rifle.
With the spring thaw underway, Tyler makes camp near a wolf’s den, and observes the behavior of a white wolf he names “George.” Tyler establishes boundaries with the animal by marking his territory with urine. He also discovers George’s mate, which he names “Angeline,” and their three cubs. Despite the absence of caribou and other game, the wolves appear to thrive on a diet of mice. With his own food supply nearly exhausted and his tent overrun with rodents, Tyler decides to emulate the wolves. He observes the deferential behavior of other wolves in the den, and determines that George and Angeline are leaders of their pack. Among them is a brown wolf Tyler names “Uncle Albert,” because of his affinity for the cubs. Tyler imitates the sound of howling wolves with his bassoon, and joins the animals as they call to each other.
Ootek returns, accompanied by his adopted son, Mike, who acts as his father’s translator. Tyler tries to teach Mike to play the bassoon, but the young man is prevented by his lack of front teeth. One night, Ootek tells the story of how a wolf saved him from the cold and became his “helping spirit.” Later, Mike describes the proper technique for hunting wolves, explaining that he and many others earn a living from selling wolf pelts, which are valued at $350 each. However, Mike promises not to kill George and his pack, out of consideration for Tyler. Other members of Ootek’s family visit during the last week of August, and as the group sits around the campfire, Mike narrates the Inuit legend of the caribou, and how the hunters left only the weak and sick among the herds. When the wolves appeared, they attacked only the weakest animals, allowing the caribou to regain their strength, and provide food and clothing for the Inuit. As wolves howl in the distance, Mike informs Tyler that the caribou are coming from the north, and the hunting will soon begin. Ootek’s family travels north, Mike travels south, and Ootek guides Tyler on a three-day journey to the tundra, to observe the wolves as they hunt caribou. Shortly after their arrival, Tyler lies naked in the sun after a swim in the river, and suddenly finds himself surrounded by caribou. He follows a pack of wolves as they give chase and kill one of the fleeing animals.
Later, Tyler examines the carcass and discovers a disease of the bone marrow. As he watches Ootek disappear in the distance, Tyler follows the sound of gunshots to an encampment, where Rosie and two companions roast caribou meat over a fire. Rosie is glad to see Tyler, whom he expected to have died in the wilderness. He tells the biologist of his plans to build a resort around a nearby hot spring, then offers to fly Tyler back to civilization. Noticing that the airplane is loaded with wolf pelts, Tyler refuses. Rosie is indifferent to Tyler’s outrage and promises to come back for him in the next few days. Three days later, Tyler returns to his campsite, and finds George and Angeline’s cubs alone in the den. Rosie’s plane flies overhead and Tyler fires his rifle to dissuade the pilot. As Rosie flies away, Tyler hears a radio playing in a nearby shack and discovers Mike inside, preparing to travel north for the winter. When Tyler asks about the missing wolves, Mike advises him to worry about his own survival, explaining that the slaughter of George and Angeline are a sad reality. Mike smiles as he invokes the phrase “survival of the fittest,” displaying a new set of false teeth. In retrospect, Tyler concludes, “There were no simple answers; no heroes, no villains, only silence.” However, he also understands that his pioneering study of wolves would change humanity’s perception of the animals. As autumn arrives, the cubs are adopted by the pack and taken to a distant location. Ootek returns to guide Tyler out of the wilderness.
- Charles Martin Smith as Tyler
- Brian Dennehy as Rosie Little
- Zachary Ittimangnaq as Ootek
- Samson Jorah as Mike
- Hugh Webster as Drunk
- Martha Ittimangnaq as Woman
- Tom Dahlgren as Hunter #1
- Walker Stuart as Hunter #2
The film's fundamental premise is that life in the Arctic seems to be about dying: not only are the caribou and the wolves dying, but the indigenous Inuit people as well. The animals are losing their habitat and the Inuit are losing their land and their resources while their youth are being seduced by modernity. They are trading what is real, true, and their time-honored traditions for the perceived comforts of the modern world.
Never Cry Wolf blends the documentary film style with the narrative elements of drama, resulting in a type of docudrama. It was originally written for the screen by Sam Hamm but the screenplay was altered over time and Hamm ended up sharing credit with Curtis Hanson and Richard Kletter.
The picture is the first Walt Disney film to show naked adult buttocks. (of actor Charles Martin Smith).
Smith, who had previously worked with Disney on films such as No Deposit, No Return and Herbie Goes Bananas, devoted almost three years to Never Cry Wolf. Smith wrote, "I was much more closely involved in that picture than I had been in any other film. Not only acting, but writing and the whole creative process." He also found the process difficult. "During much of the two-year shooting schedule in Canada's Yukon and in Nome, Alaska, I was the only actor present. It was the loneliest film I've ever worked on," Smith said.
L. David Mech, an internationally recognized wolf expert who has researched wolves since 1958 in places such as Minnesota, Canada, Italy, Alaska, Yellowstone National Park, and on Isle Royale, criticized the work, stating that Mowat is no scientist and that in all of Mech's own studies, he had never encountered a wolf pack that regularly subsisted on small prey, as related in Mowat's book or in the film adaptation.
The film locations included Nome, Alaska, the Yukon Territory, and British Columbia, Canada.
When the film was released, a review in the Los Angeles Times called the film, "...subtle, complex, and hypnotic...triumphant filmmaking!"
Brendon Hanley of Allmovie also liked the film, especially Smith's performance, and wrote, "Wolf's protagonist is wonderfully played by the reliable character actor Charles Martin Smith...The result is a quirky, deceptively simple meditation on life."
Ronald Holloway, film critic of Variety magazine, gave the film a mostly positive review, and wrote "For the masses out there who love nature films, and even those who don't, Carroll Ballard's more than fits the commercial bill and should score well too with critical suds on several counts."
Some critics found the premise of the film a bit hard to believe. Vincent Canby, film critic for The New York Times, wrote, "I find it difficult to accept the fact that the biologist, just after an airplane has left him in the middle of an icy wilderness, in a snowstorm, would promptly get out his typewriter and, wearing woolen gloves, attempt to type up his initial reactions. Canby added, the film was "a perfectly decent if unexceptional screen adaptation of Farley Mowat's best-selling book about the author's life among Arctic wolves."
The review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 100% based on reviews from 17 critics, with an average rating of 7.7 out of 10.
- Boston Society of Film Critics Awards: 4th BSFC Award; Best Cinematography, Hiro Narita; 1984.
- Hawaii International Film Festival: Excellence in Cinematography Award, Hiro Narita; 1984.
- Motion Picture Sound Editors: Golden Reel Award; Best Sound Editing - Sound Effects; 1984.
- National Society of Film Critics Awards: NSFC Award Best Cinematography, Hiro Narita; 1984.
- Western Heritage Awards: Bronze Wrangler; Theatrical Motion Picture, Carroll Ballard; 1984.
- Academy Awards: Best Sound; Alan Splet, Todd Boekelheide, Randy Thom, and David Parker; 1984.
The film opened in limited release October 7, 1983 and went into wide circulation January 20, 1984.
The film was in theaters for 192 days (27 weeks) and the total US gross sales were $27,668,764. In its widest release the film appeared in 540 theaters.
Comparisons to book
There are several differences in the film when compared to Mowat's book. In the book, Ootek and Mike's roles are reversed, Mike is actually Ootek's older brother (Ootek is a teenager) and Ootek speaks fluent English and communicates openly with Mowat while Mike is more reserved.
The film adds a more spiritual element to the story while the book was a straightforward story. The film also isolates the characters while in the book, Mowat meets several people from different areas of the Arctic.
Also in the book, the wolves are not killed and neither did the bush pilot bring in investors to build a resort.