Video Vault: ALASKA
Who doesn’t love a good bear movie? I sure don’t. That’s why this week we are checking out 1996’s family adventure tale, Alaska. With an estimated $20 million budget, the epic only raked in about $12 million in domestic returns. The 2 hour commercial for Alaskan eco-touristism was filmed primarily in British Columbia and stars Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men), Thora Birch, and Charlton Heston. Wait. Whaaaaaa?? Charlton Heston?? Yep, that Charlton Heston. The movie was directed by Charlton’s son Fraser Clarke Heston, and it is his most notable work in a small filmography of mostly TV movies (although one credit of interest is a TV adaptation of Treasure Island starring Charlton, Christian Bale, and Christopher Lee). The film also stars a polar bear cub with the stage name of Agee. This is his first and only screen appearance.
When a toilet paper delivery man crash lands his biplane on the edge of “Devil’s Thumb” in a storm, it is up to his teenage children, Jessie (Thora Birch) and Sean (Vincent Kartheiser), to rescue him when the state authorities prove incompetent. Jessie turns out to be a survivalist genius (she learned from ESPN, duh!), which comes in handy as the siblings kayak along a rough rocky coast and fjord, rock climb, navigate white-water rapids, cross glaciers, and snow trek down icy slopes. A polar bear cub that they rescue from Perry (Charlton Heston), a duplicitous poacher sporting an evil two-toned goatee, follows the kids everywhere. Every attempt to NOT befriend the potentially dangerous predator are made until a mystical native informs them that he is their spirit guide and that they must, “trust the bear.”
Determined to sell the bear cub to “The Chinese”, Perry returns to kidnap “Cubby”, the spirit guide. Unfortunately, his dopey helicopter pilot does not administer enough tranquilizer and the bear awakes aboard the small chopper. A good ‘ole fashioned aeronautical bear mauling leads to a crash landing. Cubby bites Perry on the knee cap and he is left disabled and cursing in the snow. Meanwhile, Sean repels down a cliff to pull his father out of the metal wreckage at the last possible second before it goes crashing to the boulders below. A cable malfunction leaves Jessie alone with the weight of her dangling older brother and father. Just before the rope slips though her fingers, Cubby appears and pulls everyone to safety!! In a final twist it is revealed that Cubby is actually a girl!!!!
Honestly, this movie has a lot of things going for it despite some silly/improbable turns. Heston as the Sierra Club version of Kraven the Hunter is definitely one of those things. His Machiavellian cunning and intimidating presence make for a believable villain that is far more menacing than the silly bad guys of the film’s contemporaries. Stupid over-the-top bad guy humor is limited to the doofus chopper pilot. The role and danger of nature as antagonist is also portrayed authentically despite the improbable teens’ responses to it. The wilderness is big and dangerous and scary and the film does make that clear through several harrowing sequences that really should have ended in death. The siblings’ initial interactions with the bear cub are refreshingly cautious, however. They do not immediately start cuddling the cute white fluff as they know it is a wild predatory beast that could eat them! Because the film is so much more grounded in reality (and better) than similar films of the era (see The Amazing Panda Adventure and Gold Diggers: The Secret of Bear Mountain), the absurd moments of mystical bear intervention and unpracticed extreme sport successes are made extra unbelievable.
Another thing I liked about this film is that it features siblings as the heroes as opposed to a duo of friends, which adds a more rarely seen dynamic. Birch is delightfully (naively) optimistic while Kartheiser has that conflicted Pete Campbell-ness about him. They make a good brother-sister team. Epic landscape cinematography and a sweeping adventure score round out the memorably positive qualities of Alaska. I was surprisingly entertained by this entry in the kids-in-nature 90’s movie sub-genre and can easily forgive the terrible green-screened heroic-bear-in-front-of-aurora borealis shot. Also, the helicopter bear mauling scene was dope!