Tag Archives: dog movies

Cool Running

The Great Alaskan Race

by Rachel Willis

If you’re looking for a movie to watch with your extended family this holiday season, you likely won’t go wrong with director Brian Presley’s film, The Great Alaskan Race. 

Based on a true story, Presley’s film, in which he also stars, is a touching dedication to the mushers and sled dogs who saved the children of Nome, Alaska from a deadly diphtheria outbreak in 1925.

The film opens in 1917 with a voiceover narration introducing the audience to Leonhard Seppala (Presley), a man who has embraced the Alaskan wilderness and its people. We jump ahead one year and learn a flu epidemic has killed half of the native population, including Seppala’s wife, leaving him to care for their infant daughter, Sigrid. 

The opening feels like an unnecessary prologue to a film that addresses this past through dialogue, but its intention is to help us understand Seppala’s motivation to participate in the treacherous run to deliver the diphtheria antitoxin. Once the disease begins to affect the children of Nome, Seppala is terrified his daughter will fall victim to the deadly illness.

Much of the film’s first act is devoted to understanding the tight-knit community in Nome. Through Sigrid (portrayed by Presley’s daughter, Emma), we see that she is beloved by both her indigenous relatives and the settlers to the region, as they share in raising Sigrid while her father works in the area’s gold mines. 

The movie does a good job of letting us know who the characters are, but when it comes to portraying the epic 674-mile run to deliver the lifesaving medicine, it falls short. There are too few scenes of the mushers and their sled dogs fighting the elements and too many scenes of Dr. Welch (Treat Williams) and his nurses tending to the sick kids. For a historical event known as the Great Race of Mercy, we never truly feel the danger and daring involved in such a momentous undertaking.

That’s not to say there aren’t any scenes in which Seppala and some of the other mushers contend with blizzards and subzero temperatures, there just aren’t enough. The scenes they do include are the movie’s most interesting moments. 

For those who already know the story (or have seen the animated Balto from 1995), there may not be many surprises. But for audiences who don’t know this history, or the reason the Iditarod is run yearly, or why there is a statue of Balto the dog in Central Park, they’re likely to learn a few interesting facts. Either way, The Great Alaskan Race is a movie that celebrates community and the great things people can achieve when they work together to help those in need.

Guiding Light

Pick of the Litter

by Brandon Thomas

Whether it’s true or not, dogs make us feel like their sole purpose in life is to fill us full of happiness. Dancing at the front door when you come home from work… a sneak attack of kisses that always ends with you in a fit of giggles…nice long naps together on the couch. More than just making us feel good, dogs can serve a greater purpose in the lives of people with visual impairments. That journey to find this purpose is where Pick of the Litter takes us.

The documentary opens with the birth of Labrador pups Patriot, Potomac, Phil, Primrose and Poppet. They are the newest arrivals on the campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind, and their training will start on only their second day of life. The training to become a guide dog isn’t easy; out of the 800 dogs born there each year, only 300 become actual guides. The process is time-consuming, strict and unemotional… but it’s never, ever boring.

Directors Don Hardy, Jr. and Dana Nachman give us plenty of cute puppy footage, but never shy away from the seriousness of what a guide dog will end up doing. Bonds immediately form between the puppies and their “raisers,” who will work to socialize them. They can be quickly pulled away from those same raisers if it’s felt that the dogs can benefit more from being in another home. It’s that pull between emotion and dedication that gives Pick of the Litter its ultimate strength.

The urge to root for these pups is there from the beginning. Pick of the Litter doesn’t get too clinical in its approach to the dogs. We’re allowed to get to know them and pick out those distinct personalities. It also stings when one of them isn’t able to make the cut.

The stories of the people involved are just as important. The frustration felt by the trainers when the dogs don’t pass is palpable. Of course, the end game is for these dogs to end up with someone who will rely on them as their guides. Those stories are thankfully not lost, and give the audience that light at the end of the tunnel for our pup stars.

It’s easy to forget that dogs can do more than fetch, roll over and shake. They can give some people their independence back.

Man’s best friend, indeed.