There’s a lot going on in dogsledding that’s tough to capture on film: subtle physical demands, the bond between human and animal, the struggle against the elements. Every so often, a filmmaker really nails it; other times, he says the hell with it, does a few bong loads, and makes Snow Dogs. Our picks for most memorable mushing movies:
Iron Will (1994)
The storyline comes courtesy of the 1990s Family Movie Plot Generator: Small-town kid with a heart of gold enters a high-stakes dogsled race in order to (literally) save the farm, following the tragic death of his dad (while mushing). Luckily, he has a Wise Old Indian to help him in his quest! Fluffy Disney fare here, but the racing scenes are smartly filmed and rather harrowing, and the title character’s relative level of bloodied exhaustion at the finish line nicely approximates actual long-distance mushing. Plus, young Kevin Spacey!
Snow Dogs (2002)
Take the director who gave us Beethoven, Problem Child 2, and Jingle All the Way. Add a career-nadir Cuba Gooding, Jr. getting dragged off of cliffs and bit on the ass by sled dogs with trippy CGI facial expressions. Throw in an unsummarizable subplot about racial harmony, a cameo by Michael Bolton, and a surreal dream sequence where a Siberian husky speaks in the voice of Jim Belushi. This is the best dogsledding movie that Cheech and Chong never made. (Hey, we called this a “must-watch” list, not a “best of” list.)
More than just a great dog movie, this Japanese blockbuster is one of cinema’s best (and most overlooked) survival flicks. Based on a true story (and rehashed by Disney into the mediocre Paul Walker vehicle Eight Below), Antarctica has all the tension of Alive or Into the Void, the terse human drama of a great war movie, and the emotional wallop of Old Yeller or Marley and Me. An aborted Antarctic mission causes a team of Japanese scientists to leave a team of sled dogs behind at their research station. While the men—including the dogs’ guilt-ridden handler—find themselves adrift in urban Japan, the stranded dogs fight cold, predators, and starvation (all realistic enough that the American Humane Association raised concerns, and all set to an otherworldly electronic score by the guy who did Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire). When Japan launches its next expedition, the handler returns to bury his dogs. If your eyes are dry during Antarctica’s last five minutes, you are not a human being.
Call of the Wild (1976)
This list would be incomplete without at least one adaptation of Jack London’s famed novel about Buck, a kidnapped St. Bernard–collie mix who becomes a lead sled dog in the Yukon before slowly going feral. Sadly, there are at least eight such adaptations, and every one of them sucks (Charlton Heston called his 1972 version “the worst movie I ever made,” requesting in his memoir that people not watch it). But this made-for-TV version is worth the $2.99 Amazon rental if only because the script is penned by author James Dickey, his cinematic follow-up to Deliverance, and it occasionally channels some of the same eerie wilderness psychosis as its predecessor. “Never eat the snow,” warns Dickey’s version of Francois. “Drives you mad.” (So might looking at the Tetons for an hour and pretending it’s the Yukon.)
Spirit of the Wind (1979)
A perfectly understated indie drama made on a shoestring budget, this biopic of Athabascan champion sprint musher George Attla was re-released on DVD last year after unfairly fading into obscurity. Spirit of the Wind premiered at Cannes in 1979, won Best Picture at the U.S. Film Festival (the predecessor to Sundance), and was praised by film critics for its stark landscape cinematography. Pius Savage (a pipeliner before he auditioned for the film) captures the quiet intensity of Attla, a tuberculosis survivor who spent his teenage years in a state hospital and returned home feeling severed from his people. The supporting performances are a little wooden, but the climactic race sequence is still thrilling.