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.
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.