Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North

Quad theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North

Walt Disney loved dogs, although you wouldn’t necessarily guess that based on some of the ordeals they go through in his films. We all know the sad fate of Old Yeller. The adorable little pup in Ten Who Dared comes within a whisker of being shot in the face himself. Even the animated dogs have a rough time of it. It’s a miracle all one hundred and one Dalmatians made it back to London in one piece. But all those dogs had it easy compared to Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North.

With Perri, Walt had constructed a fictional narrative about a squirrel using techniques honed by the True-Life Adventures crew. Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North represents the next step in that evolution. Winston Hibler, the narrator and cowriter of the True-Life Adventures, produced and cowrote the screenplay with Ralph Wright, a long-time Disney storyman and later, the voice of Eeyore.

Jack Couffer, one of two credited directors on the film, had been a cinematographer on films like Secrets Of Life. He’d go on to an Oscar nomination for his cinematography on the film Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The other director, Don Haldane, was new to Disney. He was a Canadian filmmaker whose company Westminster Films seems to have specialized mainly in educational films.

Hibler and Wright based their script on the novel Nomads Of The North by James Oliver Curwood. Curwood was a hugely successful and prolific author of Jack London-style wilderness adventure stories that I’d honestly never heard of before sitting down to write this. But evidently, nearly two hundred movies and TV shows have been based on his work, most of which you’ve probably never seen. One you might be familiar with is the 1989 French adventure film The Bear directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud.

Now I’m not going to assume there are too many Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North superfans out there, so perhaps a more detailed plot synopsis is in order. When we first meet Nikki, a Malamute pup, and his master Andre (played by Jean Coutu, a Canadian actor who does not appear to have made many films in English other than this one), they’re peacefully canoeing down the river on their way to “fur trapping headquarters”. They make a pit stop and Nikki goes exploring, discovering a treed bear cub named Neewa.

Neewa had run afoul of a huge grizzly named Makoos and his mother died trying to protect him. Andre finds Nikki barking up at Neewa, spots the mother’s dead body nearby and pieces together what happened. At first, Andre is quite sensibly unsure that bringing Neewa along would be a good idea. But he can’t just leave the cub to die, so he gets it out of the tree and ties Neewa and Nikki together with a rope.

The three Canadian caballeros get back on the river, whereupon Nikki and Neewa predictably begin fighting. Andre’s attention is split between separating the animals and navigating the canoe through some treacherous rapids. Dog and bear cub go overboard, shooting down the rapids at a breakneck pace. Working together, they’re able to reach the shore. Andre searches for his lost dog but when Nikki sees him cruising down the river, the pup assumes he’s been abandoned.

Nikki and Neewa spend the next several weeks lashed together, roaming the forest like a wildlife version of The Defiant Ones. Nikki definitely gets the short end of this deal. Unable to hunt for food, he’s forced to adapt to Neewa’s diet of berries and grubs. When Neewa catches the scent of honey, it’s Nikki who suffers the worst of the bees’ wrath. And when Neewa climbs a tree to catch some sleep, Nikki ends up dangling from the rope beneath him.

Eventually the rope breaks (Andre must have been an Eagle Scout in knot tying) and the two go their separate ways. But the pair developed a bond, or at least some form of Stockholm Syndrome, during their forced cohabitation, so Neewa returns and the dog and the bear grow up together, roughhousing and learning the ways of the forest.

However, all good things must come to an end and when winter hits, Neewa returns to his den to hibernate. Nikki struggles to survive over the next few weeks. Food is scarce and he can’t compete with bigger predators like wolves. Relief comes when Nikki stumbles upon a trapping line. After some trial and error, Nikki figures out how to safely spring the trap so he can get to the bait inside. Our plucky hero has himself a little feast, following the line and stealing the fresh meat from the traps.

Needless to say, this does not sit well with diabolical trapper Jacques Lebeau (Émile Genest, who will be back in this column). Lebeau sets a trap for Nikki, lacing a piece of meat with enough poison to drop a horse. Nikki is smart enough to not eat the whole thing, consuming just enough poison to make him temporarily sick. Lebeau and his Indian guide (whose name is Makoki, played by Uriel Luft, although he’s only referred to as “the Indian” for most of the picture) catch up to Nikki. Impressed by Nikki’s size and strength, Lebeau decides he’d make an ideal fighting dog and starts him on a cruel and ruthless training regimen.

Lebeau and Makoki arrive at the trading camp, only to discover that the new factor has outlawed dog fighting. Nobody seems to take the new rule too seriously and Lebeau soon has a fight lined up. Nikki wins the savage bout but the new factor arrives to put a stop to it. The factor turns out to be Nikki’s old master, Andre. He naturally wants his dog back and Lebeau jumps into the pit to challenge Andre to a fight. When Makoki sees Lebeau pull a knife, he cuts Nikki’s restraining rope and allows the dog to jump in and save Andre.

Lebeau is killed and the entire camp is ready to put down the savage, uncontrollable dog. But once again, Makoki intervenes, demonstrating that Lebeau fell onto his own knife. With the dog exonerated, Andre hires Makoki and the three of them presumably live happily ever after.

Walt Disney's Story Of Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North album cover.

This is a difficult movie to judge on its own merits. It’s never boring, the wilderness photography is impressive and Nikki is a very good boy indeed. Directors Couffer and Haldane stage some very exciting sequences. The human actors are all pretty good, although their contributions are minimal. Genest in particular makes Lebeau into one of the most despicable villains in the Disney canon. Even fellow dog hater Cruella DeVil might find him to be a bit much.

All that being said, I’m not sure I can recommend Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North. There’s a reason this one isn’t available on Disney Plus. This is easily one of the most violent Disney movies I’ve ever seen. Nikki is really put through the wringer and it’s hard to imagine that the animal’s welfare was anyone’s primary concern. If the bullfighting sequence in The Littlest Outlaw rubs you the wrong way, you’re really not going to like seeing two beautiful dogs going at each other in a barren ice pit.

I’m not sure how well Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North performed at the box office. I assume it did okay relative to how much it cost to produce. By 1964, it was airing on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color. After that, it didn’t leave much of a mark. Today, it’s another live-action Disney obscurity. It isn’t impossible to find but you have to put in the effort to seek it out.

If the movie has a legacy, it’s the realization that dogs make much more interesting and sympathetic protagonists than squirrels. Walt would continue to build features around our canine companions. As a matter of fact, we’ll be seeing another one in this column next time. And while all of these movie star dogs will face challenges and obstacles, most of them will dial back the physical peril a few notches. Nikki definitely had it rougher than most.

VERDICT: If you’re cool with dog fights and other scenes that border on animal cruelty, this is a minor Disney Plus. If not, steer clear of this Disney Minus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Perri

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Perri

By 1957, Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures had become profitable, critically acclaimed, popular and maybe just a little predictable. Shorts and features alike followed an identical template. You see that spinning globe centered in the compass, followed by the Animated Paintbrush setting the stage, and you know pretty much what to expect. You do not expect something like Perri, which may well be one of the strangest movies we’ll cover in this column.

Perri is unique among True-Life Adventures in many ways, most obviously in its official categorization as a “True-Life Fantasy”. Some of the other True-Life Adventures may have engaged in some dubious methods but this is the first (and only) one that is explicitly not a documentary. It’s based on the novel Perri: The Youth Of A Squirrel by Felix Salten, the author of Bambi. But while the narrative is entirely fictional, the accompanying footage is so expertly shot that it can be hard to tell the difference between what’s staged and what’s real.

As the movie opens, it’s easy to assume that you’re watching Bambi II. Instead of the typical True-Life Adventures opening or even a live-action establishing shot, the first thing we see is a gorgeous matte painting by Peter Ellenshaw with effects by Ellenshaw and Ub Iwerks creating the illusion of a sunrise. The effects slowly and seamlessly transition to live-action nature photography. But the juxtaposition of real and manmade footage creates a subliminal dreamlike atmosphere.

The general thrust of the story follows Perri, a newborn female pine squirrel over the course of her first year. The movie hews closely to the Bambi template. The action is divided into seasons. Perri loses her father early on and later becomes separated from the rest of her family. It even features a climactic forest fire. At least Perri doesn’t have to worry about the threat of man in the forest.

None of this was accidental. Walt knew exactly what he was doing. He makes the Bambi connection even more explicit by having Perri actually encounter the Great Prince of the Forest and his new young son. So the concept of a shared universe didn’t arrive at Disney with their acquisition of Marvel. As early as 1957, Walt had already established the Shared Bambi-verse.

Perri boasts some extraordinary footage, some of which is very intense. There’s an early sequence where Perri’s mother attracts the attention of a hungry marten (the marten will eventually reveal itself as the film’s villain, even as Winston Hibler’s narration goes to great pains to assure us that the marten is just another mother trying to feed her young). The marten chases the squirrel back to her nest high in the trees and even tries to follow her in, nipping in extreme close-up the entire time. Perri’s father sees the commotion and draws the marten away from the nest, only to lose his own life.

Because of sequences like this, you might want to think about it before you plunk your youngest, most impressionable kids down in front of Disney+ to watch Perri. Younger children have a rough enough time with Bambi and his mom’s death happens off-screen. The footage in Perri would be rough to watch even if we weren’t being asked to identify with a baby squirrel losing a parent. These animals are really going at it.

Perri’s dad is far from the only casualty. We can safely assume at least some of the on-screen deaths were captured in the wild and on the fly. There’s a spectacular shot of a hawk nabbing a flying squirrel in midair that I would chalk up to skilled nature photographers being in the right place at the right time. The squirrel vs marten sequence is more problematic since it was clearly staged. The story dictates that Perri’s dad dies, so co-directors N. Paul Kenworthy, Jr. and Ralph Wright set up their cameras, let loose a couple of their many squirrels and martens and shot nature taking its course. PETA would definitely have a problem with Perri if it was released today.

Theatrical re-release poster for Perri

If you’re not an animal rights activist, the biggest problem with Perri is narrative. The life of a squirrel just doesn’t seem to be as interesting as the life of a deer. Perri runs around a lot trying to find food and a nest. Eventually, she finds Porro, the young male squirrel who becomes her mate. But she doesn’t make any friends and spends most of the movie alone. Because she’s an actual squirrel and that’s the way actual squirrels behave. Disney would have left himself a lot more story options if he’d turned this into a cartoon.

Instead, the movie fills time with a lot of other animals whose interactions with Perri are minimal at best. There’s a beaver family and a racoon family and a skunk family and a fox family and all sorts of birds. At times, the movie gets so sidetracked by these other woodland creatures that it’s easy to forget about Perri completely.

Also like Bambi, Perri makes time for several original songs by the likes of Paul J. Smith, George Bruns and Hazel “Gil” George. None of the songs in Perri are as memorable as “Little April Shower” or “Love Is A Song” but they’re fine. Smith’s score did manage to snag an Academy Award nomination, his eighth and last. He lost to Malcolm Arnold’s score for The Bridge On The River Kwai.

Music plays a big role in the film’s strangest sequence, an extended winter dream filmed entirely in studio. To the accompaniment of Smith’s score, rabbits, squirrels and birds scurry about, appearing and disappearing in bursts of animated snowflakes courtesy of effects animator Joshua Meador. Meador had been with the studio since 1936 and he’d worked on pretty much everything. From shorts to features, from propaganda films to True-Life Adventures, from live-action/animation hybrids to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Meador had done it all.

When an effects animator is doing their job right, you really shouldn’t notice them at all. Their work is designed to blend into the background, providing things like ripples and waves that add to a scene’s realism. Perri provides a rare showcase for Meador. This time, the snow effects are meant to call attention to themselves, distinguishing the dream from reality. It’s a beautifully realized sequence, even if it does seem to come out of left field.

Perri was one of the few True-Life Adventures not directed by James Algar. Instead, it was a collaboration between cinematographer Paul Kenworthy, animator and storyman Ralph Wright, and True-Life narrator Winston Hibler. Walt had been impressed enough by Kenworthy’s work as a college student to buy his footage and hire him to expand it into The Living Desert. Kenworthy assembled a large and impressive team of photographers for Perri, including Walt’s nephew, Roy Edward Disney. Roy got his start in the family business working as an assistant editor on earlier True-Life Adventure films. He would end up wearing a wide variety of hats at the studio over the next several decades. We’ll see his name again.

Perri would be Kenworthy’s crowning achievement at Disney. He left the studio by the end of the 1950s and would go on to win a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award for developing the Kenworthy Snorkel Camera System, a revolutionary periscopic camera head still used today.

Ralph Wright joined the studio in the 1940s, making a name for himself as a story artist on Goofy’s How-To shorts. Apart from a couple of documentary shorts for Disney’s People & Places series, Perri would be Wright’s only live-action credit at the studio. Later on, he’d achieve immortality as the voice and personality model for Eeyore in the Winnie the Pooh films.

As for Winston Hibler, he had been co-writing and providing the narration for the True-Life Adventures since the very first short, Seal Island. Hibler was very involved with Perri, producing, writing the script with Wright and lyrics to some of the songs. Hibler and Wright decided to present most of the script in rhyming couplets, a choice that gets a little distracting after awhile. The rhyming isn’t consistent or rhythmic enough to fade into the background. Hibler also tries on a more formal affect for the narration, losing some of the friendly charm that made his voice so distinctive. Still, it’s nice to have the consistency of Hibler’s voice throughout the series.

When Perri was released in August 1957, both critics and audiences were impressed. It did well enough at the box office to inspire a couple of theatrical re-releases and some memorabilia: storybooks, a record, even a Revell model kit of Perri herself. But it did not inspire any follow-up True-Life Fantasies. Its legacy would be carried on in movies like The Incredible Journey, features with minimal human cast members and animals that are somewhat easier to film like dogs and cats. But Perri remains one of a kind, a unique, sometimes meandering but often beautiful film that would almost certainly never be made today.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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