The success of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s handsome lupine adventure Wolf Totem relies in large part on the ratio between wolf and totem. There are wolves — those howling, majestic hunters of the Mongolian grasslands — and then there are the many things they stand for: freedom, teamwork, the delicate harmony of nature, and the devastating encroachment of civilization on centuries-old tradition. (And that’s just for starters.) Whenever Annaud and his cinematographer, Jean-Marie Dreujou, chase the pack across lush green hills and arid plains, Wolf Totem has the elemental beauty of a Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion) production or the better sequences from The Bear, Annaud’s simple, affecting 1988 film. Whenever it pauses to consider, say, how the declining wolf population reflects the thoughtless dictates of the Cultural Revolution, the film bites off more gazelle meat than it can chew.
Though based on Jiang Rong’s popular semi-autobiographical novel, which drew on his own experience as a herder for eleven years in Inner Mongolia, this French-Chinese production plays something like a repurposed Dances With Wolves, right down to the Easternized score by the late James Horner. In the Kevin Costner role, there’s Chen Zhen (Feng Shaofeng), a feckless student from Beijing who’s sent to help civilize the Mongolian nomads and carve out a place for migrating Han Chinese. Eventually, he runs with the tribe. He has a Mary McDonnell in Gasma (Ankhnyam Ragchaa), the widowed daughter of the wise chief Bilig (Basen Zhabu), and he takes in a wolf cub, too, that rivals Costner’s “Two Socks” for fluffy, yelping adorability.
Wolf Totem addresses the particular ways Chinese social engineering upsets an ecosystem that Bilig and his forefathers have maintained for generations, but the filmmakers have taken a one-size-fits-all approach to environmentalist adventure. A universal theme like man-versus-nature still needs support from specifics, but beyond the horrifying spectacle of hurling sacks of wolf cubs to the heavens, Annaud and his co-screenwriters, Alain Godard, Lu Wei, and John Collee, don’t offer many. They’ve flattened the story into natives and naïfs against polluters and functionaries, and simplified the torments of a hero caught in between.
When the wolves run free, however, Annaud supplies all the breathtaking panoramas promised by a big international production set loose in the wilds of Inner Mongolia. In IMAX 3-D, you can practically feel the wetness of a wolf’s snout as it scans the grasslands, looking for strays in a passing herd or a poorly monitored sheep pen. There are striking images: a previously untouched lake blackened by careless settlers from the east; frozen gazelle carcasses preserved by being wedged into the ground, which serves as a makeshift wolf refrigerator. Wolf Totem itself becomes a pitched battle for supremacy between the breathtaking glories of nature and the grinding banality of man. Here, as ever, nature loses.