Well, this is going to be different. I’ve never reviewed half a movie before. It’s sort of an ideal situation for a critic: I get to praise the half of this month’s movie I really liked, and mercilessly mock the half I didn’t. Talk about having your cake and eating it too. The downside, of course, is that this means that this month’s feature, Alaska (1996), is only half the movie it could have been.
I was in a bit of a quandary. I haven’t reviewed a children’s film in quite a while (although I did recommend watching Hideous Kinky with your teen-aged kids), and I wanted something a little more suited to the Christmas season than, say, Brad Pitt’s amazing performance as a psycho killer in Kalifornia. It was a tough choice: Do I go with a seriously flawed film that’s still a treat for kids, or stick to my heavy critical guns and dispense with the peace & goodwill to all? Softie that I am, I decided to go with the cute polar bear. If you have bad memories of Lassie, skip to the next article.
The plot of Alaska is about as hard to summarize as a box of Fruit Loops. A former 747 pilot from Chicago, Jake Barnes (Dirk Benedict), moves to a small seaside village in Alaska after the tragic death of his wife. He brings along his two children, 13-year-old Jessie (Thora Birch) and 15-year-old Sean (Vincent Kartheiser), and starts a new career as a bush pilot. Jessie is thrilled by the move, keeping tabs on her dad on the short-wave radio and getting sea-kayaking lessons from a native friend. Sean sulks over video games and kicks over trash cans. He wants to be back in Chicago; he despises dad for opting to fly shipments of toilet paper in the boonies instead of sticking to his proper station in life. Inevitably, Sean winds up saying something really bad to his dad just before dad’s Piper Cub disappears in a storm. I’ll just throw out a few words at this point—guilt, poachers, cute bear cub, rapids, cliffs, native wisdom—and leave few blank lines to let you fill in the rest of the story:
Well done! For bonus points, you can explain why Jake felt obliged to compound the devastating effect of his wife’s death on his family by changing careers and taking them as far away from their home as was culturally and geographically possible. The screenwriters seemed to have missed this fine point. Motivation is not their strong suit.
Nor is logic. One could manoeuvre ice bergs through the lapses in credibility. Sean—who’s Mr. I’m-So-Not-Into-This-Wilderness-Scene, doesn’t recognize the word “belay” (probably the first term any beginning rock climber learns), and can’t remember to pack matches—somehow manages to grab all the sophisticated climbing gear he’ll need to effect a high-altitude, maximum-hazard rescue. The polar bear cub that becomes the children’s “spirit guide” seems to have better tracking technology than James Bond, not to mention an awareness bordering on omniscience. Still more incredible, a sympathetic native elder (veteran Canadian actor Gordon Tootoosis) gives Jessie and Sean his blessing to head out into the mountains to find and save their father, without bothering to offer to come along and maybe provide a few decades of survival skills to go with his five minutes of philosophical wisdom. Gee, thanks. I was going to say that Chief Dan George is probably turning over in his grave, but on second thought I’m sure he’s laughing.
So much for the half of Alaska that doesn’t matter. This is not the movie that I believe your young children will see. Their capacity for cynical remove is hopefully as underdeveloped as that of their elders is bulked up with ironic overkill. Children will see an exciting adventure story set amid landscapes of awe-inspiring beauty, with two sympathetic lead actors, an even more sympathetic lead bear, and a couple of savoury villains.
Watching Alaska moved the idea of a trip to the Rockies or the Yukon way up on my list of priorities. Cinematographer Tony Westman has somehow managed to make IMAX work on a 28-inch screen. It’s an amazing accomplishment. The grandeur of the natural world doesn’t lend itself to easy capture, as anyone who’s taken a camera into the mountains will attest. I appreciated Westman’s work all the more because a few days prior to watching Alaska I had given up on The Legend of the Lone Ranger, shot by Lazlo Kovacs, one of the world’s great cinematographers. That movie failed miserably in making the landscapes of the American West a factor in the storytelling. What were they thinking? The landscapes of Alaska are breathtaking: sprawling glaciers, waterfalls hurtling down the sides of Olympian-scaled mountains, great frozen lakes, whitewater rapids, fjords to die for, ice floes lit like Arctic Georgia O’Keefes. Bonus: a lot of this spectacular scenery was filmed right here in B.C., in Tofino, Blackcomb Glacier Provincial Park and Bugaboo Provincial Park.
If there’s one animal whose majesty is a match for the northern wilderness, it’s the polar bear. The opening and closing shots in this film, of adult bears and cubs out on the tundra, is way beyond rhetoric. These bears are all that haunting landscape made flesh and muscle and bone. If you can’t convince your children to be concerned about vanishing worlds when they see these animals, the battle is probably lost.
The director and writers may have been weak on plot, but their casting sense didn’t fail them. Jessie and Sean’s main co-star is a B.C. polar bear cub named Agee. When you were filling in the plot outline a while back, I’m sure you included something about cub-becomes-spirit-guide-to-children-and-saves-family. What you might not have guessed is that Agee could steal scenes from Stuart Little. Quite a compliment, considering Stuart was computer-generated and Agee’s a real bear.
And for anyone who wants to complain about cute bears and cute native spirituality, zip it. This is a fantasy. Don’t spoil it for you kids. If the message is “Trust the bear” that’s just what you’ll have to do. Cavilling will make you sound a lot like Tootoosis’s son, who dismisses his father’s talk of spirit quests with a curt “This is the 90s, old man.” The son’s being realistic, and we know what a few generations of bureaucratic and theocratic “realism” have done for the people of the North.
Thora Birch and Vincent Karheiser do fine jobs in their lead roles. It’s a bit of a no-win situation when you’re competing against a polar bear and Charlton Heston. Yeah, Charlton Heston. Alaska is actually directed by his son, Fraser. Who else could have convinced his dad, best-known nowadays as the mouthpiece of the National Rifle Association, to play the role of a ruthless poacher? Charlton Heston’s lost none of his charisma from the old Ten Commandments and The Agony and Ecstasy days. I may not like his politics, but I sure hope I have his spunk when I’m in my seventies. Young people will simply enjoy him as the bad guy in Alaska, but Heston’s poacher is the film’s one step outside of fantasy. When he tells his stooge-like helicopter pilot that shooting polar bears isn’t hunting, it’s business, children may not get it but others will see that he’s incarnating the kind of evil that’s partly responsible for the current annihilation of species. No slavering monster, just a charming façade, a cold heart and no scruples. Amazingly, Heston’s character undergoes no change of heart in Alaska; he’s thoroughly foiled, but not really defeated. I had him pegged for a last-minute conversion; it was the only plot element I guessed wrong. I’m glad. After all that generous suspension of disbelief it was nice to hold on to a glimmer of paranoia.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Of all of the films I’ve re-watched as I’ve been putting Seldom Scene online, this one has given me the biggest pause. The only way I’d recommend Alaska now is as an exercise in “What’s wrong with this movie?” In a way, this is the perfect film for the Trump era: the implied message being that one should ignore professional expertise and just go with what “feels right” at the moment. Sheer gumption will succeed where knowledge & experience are implied to be impotent. Alaska must give Search & Rescue teams nightmares. Here’s a movie that teaches kids that the best thing to do in a life-or-death situation is go off half-cocked into the wilderness and force the rescue teams to have to search for two missing parties instead of just one. Parents should find comfort in knowing that their children can be expected to master white water kayaking & canoeing and Grade 4 mountain climbing without training or proper equipment (they don’t even bring matches), but simply with the help of pluck, ESPN, and the timely assistance of a polar bear cub. You can take that to the bank, kids.
I shouldn’t jest. The only lessons this movie teachers are ones that put people in the harm’s way. “Never give up” is an empty cliché if it’s combined with “Never plan ahead” and “Never consider the consequences of your actions.” The adults in the film don’t come off any better than the kids. Charlton Heston’s poacher and his pilot buddy come across more as rogues than mercenary bastards, and somehow don’t have the brains to cut & run when they know that there are two intensive manhunts underway near their base camp. A native elder provides some spiritual guidance, while letting two inexperienced children head off alone into the high alpine (with, admittedly, an absolutely perfect set of climbing gear that is conveniently & improbably recovered after a disastrous canoe wipe-out in intense rapids). Vision quests were never so easy. Just follow the bear. The Education of Little Tree was more convincing, and that was written by a former Ku Klux Klan leader and speechwriter for George Wallace.
It’s interesting that Jessie‘s best friend is a First Nations boy, Chip, but he’s not invited along on the rescue mission, nor is he asked to join Jessie and Sean after he helps to rescue them from the river. Instead, he gets a chaste kiss on the cheek and disappears from the picture.
This time around, even the music got on my nerves. It’s the traditional heroic scoring that gooses every scene to epic proportions, even when the characters are just hiking or flying through landscape. A smattering of Celtic drumming and some Andean pan flutes are thrown in to give us a break from Ben Hur.
Enough complaining. I still like the landscape and the bear (Agee reminds me of my cat; he actually as 5 acting credits on Imdb), but they’re just not enough. What I recommend at this point is that you have your kids go out and read as many Gary Paulsen books as possible. The Hatchet series would be a good start. Also The Quilt, The Haymeadow and, one of the most powerful children’s novels I’ve ever read, The Crossing. Ask your local librarian for recommendations for First Nations books for young people. A recent favorite of mine is the Yaqan Nukiy: Their History, Culture, and Traditions by local elder Chris Luke Sr.
As of February 2021, Alaska was the last of only two feature films made by director Fraser C. Heston. Fraser is Charlton Heston’s son (and got to play the infant Moses in The Ten Commandments). Thora Birch has had a fine acting career, and the same is true of her co-star Vincent Kartheiser. Thora was 14 when she appeared in Alaska. Charlton Heston continued to work in films and TV until about 5 years before his death in 2008 at age 84. He won the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1978. Duncan Fraser is another veteran, with 113 credits on Imdb as of 2020. Most of Dirk Benedict’s work has been in television, with 53 Imdb credits as of 2020. Gordon Tootoosis, who was born on the Poundmaker Reserve in Saskatchewan and is of Cree and Stoney descent, worked extensively in film and television until his death in 2011. Ben Cardinal, a Metis from Lac La Biche, Alberta, also had a strong career in film & TV, and his since become involved in the theatre as a playwright and actor. He played the bartender in Rupert’s Land, which I added to this website a couple of weeks ago. Composer Reg Powell seems to have retired from film work in 2011. I would be remiss as a critic if I didn’t check out more of his work on, say, Petticoat Planet(1996) and Beach Babes from Beyond (1993). Cinematographer Tony Westman also seems to have retired in 2011, having worked almost exclusively in television.
Available on YouTube? Yes, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AMWuNiO2R1g
The film is also available for rental or purchase through YouTube & iTunes.