Based on the same real-life story that inspired the 1995 animated feature “Balto” and Disney’s forthcoming “Togo” (and sliding into theaters not long before another sled-dog tale, the latest “Call of the Wild” remake), “The Great Alaskan Race” promises at the very least to be a satisfying movie for dog lovers. What else could one expect, as its poster consists of a husky’s face in giant closeup? Unfortunately, it turns out that very least is still too much to ask for from this handsome but hokey drama, which barely seems to notice its canine players amid a focus on one-dimensional humans.
Chief among them is writer-director-producer-star Brian Presley (best known for TV soap “Port Charles”), playing the man who successfully delivered serum to Nome with his dog team during a 1925 diphtheria epidemic — a near-miraculous run still commemorated annually by the Iditarod Trail competition. That triumph over extremely adverse conditions should make for an exciting physical adventure.
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Bound to seem rather tedious to children, while most adults will find it mawkish and uninspired, this indie feature should attract some family audiences as it opens on about 400 U.S. screens. Still, viewers of all ages are likely to leave theaters a bit disappointed, as this is a movie that promises dogs in peril, only to primarily deliver cardboard people doing a lot of hand-wringing and tear-jerking.
Though Presley does not attempt an accent, the real Leonhard Seppala left Norway for Alaska as an adult, turning to dogsled driving for a mining company when hopes of striking it rich in the Gold Rush proved illusory. We meet him here in 1917, the last of three consecutive years he won the All Alaska Sweepstakes race. The following annum, his Inuit wife died during a flu epidemic, after giving birth to their only child.
Seven years later, little Sigrid Seppala (Emma Presley) is among many local children to show signs of potentially fatal diphtheria. With all other land, sea and air delivery options impossible due to winter weather severe even by local standards, Leonhard is the obvious choice to attempt the longest (and most dangerous) part of an emergency sled run. It encompassed 20 mushers and 150 dogs over a total of 674 miles — more than half of which he covered himself, despite blizzard conditions, and temperatures that dipped to -80°F.
There have been numerous memorable cinematic portraits of survival in the Far North, but firsttime director Presley completely misses his chance to add one more. Early on, there are many pretty scenic views in DP Mark David’s attractive lensing. Once we finally get to the main event after the halfway point, however, the film evinces scant feel for outdoor action, thrills or tension.
There’s too much time spent among various waiting worriers in Nome and elsewhere. When something visceral does occur — Seppala and his dogs suffer a serious fall — it’s so poorly staged, amid obscuring “blizzard” optics, that we’re unsure exactly what’s happened. Not that this failure to properly exploit the tale’s extreme climatic hazards is any big surprise by then. From the start, Presley demonstrates a penchant for too-obvious cheating in the story’s more rugged aspects, cutting between poorly matched shots in which his hero and the wildlife (or other people) he’s observing aren’t at all convincingly in the same vicinity.
This sloppiness is odd, not just because it undercuts the story’s gist, but because “The Great Alaskan Race” is meticulous enough in other departments. The production design (Jena Serbu), costumes (Rebecca Bertot) and so forth were clearly devised with a sure grasp on what this milieu would have looked and felt like a century ago. This in turn only exposes the carelessness with which Presley’s on-the-nose script has characters explaining their feelings as no one would have in this era, the way some speak as if raised not in the Yukon but modern San Fernando Valley, and how nurse-slash-love-interest Constance (Brea Bee) trills a traditional ballad in the style of a 21st-century aspiring YouTube pop star.
It would be easy to overlook such period-fudging details if the film were otherwise suspenseful and engrossing. But in fact, they dominate a narrative that hopes you won’t notice there’s more time spent here praying in sickrooms, or watching officials bite their nails, than out in the perilous cold. As for dogs, well — let’s just assume Presley found animal wrangling a major time-suck, and decided to skimp on that part.
Instead, we get the faux “conflict” of pointless arguments where one figure insists, “But that will be dangerous!” when there’s no other option available for saving lives. Such scenes provide employment to name actors like Treat Williams, Brad Leland, Henry Thomas, Bruce Davison and James Russo, who trudge through their stiff, humorless lines like the pros they are, no more and no less. There’s also the labored element of a creaky old Inuit who does occasional voiceover (read by Neil Ross), but isn’t even granted an identity beyond “shaman narrator” in the credits.
With its general tone of inspirational uplift that’s too often spelled out in dialogue rather than felt, “The Great Alaskan Race” bears the same relation to “faith-based entertainment” that it does to action-adventure cinema: It gestures in that direction, yet doesn’t actually make the commitment.