Dogsled Afternoon

One of my New Year's resolutions was to avoid giving away the endings of films in my reviews. But sometimes a movie is so predictable I can't help myself. I feel that old temptation and I end up writing something to the effect of: "You know from the moment you read her name in the opening credits that Julia Roberts will expose the bad guys, elude her pursuers, and live happily ever after."

Not that I think predictability is a capital offense in and of itself. For example, Carlito's Way tells you up front that Carlito is in a very bad way, indeed. The film proceeds to embrace just about every gangster-movie cliche of the past 40 years, right down to the whore-madonna girlfriend and the big sellout by the trusted henchman. Yet clever dialogue, perfect-pitch mise en scänes, innovative directing, and bravura performances elevate the film from the level of knockoff to knockout.

More often than not, however, a predictable film is just plain lame. Uninspired. No magicians like De Palma behind the camera or Pacino in front of it to bail out a production. So I've devised a little game we can play when I have to review a really predictable movie. I call it "You Write the Script."

Here's how it works: I furnish a brief description of the characters and the setup. You get one minute to fill in the essential plot details.

Ready? Here goes:
Our film is called Iron Will, the latest Disney offering. It opens in a small town in South Dakota in the winter of 1917. Seventeen-year-old Will Stoneman (Sorry, no bonus points for catching the connection between the hero's first name and the film's title. Too easy. But how about "Stoneman"? There's a macho moniker for you) lives on a farm outside of town. He idolizes his parents, pilots a dogsled to work, smiles sheepishly when his gaze meets that of the rosy-cheeked gal he's sweet on, and generally lives a Norman Rockwell existence in a Currier & Ives world. Will is unsure about his future; Mom and Dad want him to go to college, but he doesn't know if he can leave the farm.

"My place is here with you, Dad," Will says. "Besides, what about the money?"

"Don't worry about the money," replies his father. "It'll be there when you need it.... Don't let fear stand in the way of your dreams, son."

"You're all probably wondering how I'd last ten minutes away from the farm," Will mutters.

"Actually, we were wondering how the farm could last ten minutes without you," Mrs. Stoneman admits without looking up from her crocheting.

(Give yourself five bonus points if you thought of Reader's Digest or Boy's Life when you read that dialogue.)

And here's where the game really takes off. Each character in this film represents a Disney archetype. The doting mother, the virile, devoted father A there's even that Disney staple, the enigmatic primitive. He counsels Will in perfect Disneyesque Injun-speak: "Run with the Moon. Embrace the darkness. You will need these medicines. When you come to face the thing you fear, let the Creator guide you. Trust yourself. Trust the dogs." Just don't trust the screenwriters! (Three points for every Disney film you can name in which one of these character types appears, fifteen points for all four in the same flick.)

One day Will catches his father gazing at an ad for a big dogsled race with a $10,000 first prize. Will asks Pops (who happens to be an excellent sledder, naturally) if he'll enter the competition. The old man responds, "Everything I want is right here." But from the gleam in his eye, you know he's thinking about that ten grand.

The following afternoon, father and son are doing rugged South Dakota man-style chores on the farm, hauling timber on their sleds and the like. Dad's overloaded sled capsizes as it makes a sharp turn near a bend in a half-frozen river; to Will's horror, his father gets tangled in the sled's cargo and the dogs' reins as he tumbles into the icy waters. The loyal dogs, led by Gus, the mean-spirited albino husky, struggle mightily to pull out their master, but the weight of sinking man, sled, and lumber drag them ever closer to the river's edge. Will rushes over and joins the fight to save his father. But noble old Dad, fearing son and dogs will be yanked into the river along with him, cuts the reins. Glug, glug, brrrrr, glug.

With Dad gone, Will's future and the farm's survival are imperiled. Bankers circle like vultures. Mom talks of selling the dogs to pay for the boy's education. Will's thoughts turn to that Winnipeg-to-St. Paul dogsled race he caught Dad reading about....

You have 60 seconds. Remember, if you take longer, you're only cheating yourself.

Iron Will.
Written by John Michael Hayes, Djordje Milicevic, and Jeff Arch; directed by Charles Haid; with Mackenzie Astin, Kevin Spacey, and David Ogden Stiers.


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