Disney's Arctic tale 'Never Cry Wolf' is trapped on the ice

Never Cry Wolf is the latest PG outing by Walt Disney Pictures, which desperately wants to shed its kiddie-movie image. It's hard to blame the Disney folks for veering away from G-rated territory, where profits and prestige are slim these days. But their maneuvers haven't caught on so far, and ''Wolf'' isn't likely to turn the tide.

The hero is a young biologist, sent by the government to study wolves and caribou in the Arctic wilderness. The official theory is that wolves are nasty predators, wreaking havoc on the innocent deer family.

Living in their natural habitat, the biologist learns differently: that the wolves are dignified and communal creatures, living mostly on tiny rodents and maintaining their families with a sense of responsibility some humans might take a lesson from. He also gains new insights into his own selfhood and capabilities.

The nature-bound subject of ''Never Cry Wolf'' - based on the book by nature- and humor-writer Farley Mowat - recalls the old Disney ''true-life adventures,'' such as ''The Living Desert'' and ''Water Birds'' and may stir memories of cartoon creatures like Bambi and his antlered friends. But those were delicate excursions into a carefully shaped, neatly sanitized version of the natural world. ''Wolf'' has an earthiness that Walt Disney himself wouldn't have considered, including mild scatological scenes and partial nudity.

The director is Carroll Ballard, whose previous feature - ''The Black Stallion'' - had a sense of mystery and romance that greatly enriched its basically thin story.

As a practical achievement, the result is impressive. Filming took place under challenging conditions in the Yukon Territory of Canada and in Nome, Alaska. Even difficult stunts (such as a plunge into an ice-bound lake) were concocted on the spot. Most of the action rests on a single character, played with quiet energy by Charles Martin Smith, whose main support comes from nonprofessional Inuit actors.

Unfortunately, the movie's excitement falls short of its behind-the-camera boldness and ambition. Smith's performance, however sincere, doesn't have enough sheer presence to stand out against striking Arctic locations and scene-stealing animal costars. The plot is sometimes confused, and much of the knockabout humor is silly, obvious, even distasteful. The grandeur of the settings and the story's scientific implications are just barely explored. And the open-ended finish seems merely inconclusive.

It's a pity that Disney's recent forays into substantive fare - ''Tex,'' ''Something Wicked This Way Comes,'' and ''Tron'' - have not lived up to expectations at the box office. In the case of ''Something Wicked,'' the movie was too offbeat for its own good. But the teen drama ''Tex'' may have been hindered largely by the Disney name, which still connotes blandness to many viewers.

This bodes badly for ''Wolf,'' which has not only the Disney label but the kind of nature-movie subject the studio thrived on in its strictly G days. Today's savvy, perhaps jaded youngsters may not be willing to give it a chance - and may be disappointed with its content if they do.

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