Wolf Totem Blu-ray Review

     Actors: Ba Sen, Zha Bu, Shaofeng Feng, Shawn Dou
  • Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
  • Producers: Xavier Castano, William Kong
  • Format: Subtitled, Widescreen
  • Language: Mandarin Chinese
  • Subtitles: French, Spanish, English
  • Dubbed: French, Spanish
  • Subtitles for the Hearing Impaired: English
  • Region: Region A/1
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: PG-13
  • Studio: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
  • Release Date: December 15, 2015
  • Run Time: 122 minutes


            I must admit, I entered into Wolf Totem with the wrong expectations, mistakenly thinking the narrative was similar to the nature films director Jean-Jacques Annaud has done in the past, such as The Bear or Two Brothers. Despite the wolves being the most sympathetic characters in Wolf Totem, they are not the protagonists, though the bigger difference lies in the treatment of the animals. The sheer relentlessness of the brutality against nature and the title animal makes Wolf Totem a near impossible endurance test for animal lovers. The film is presented in both 2D and 3D on the Blu-ray, though there are far too many scenes I would prefer to have not seen at all, much less in 3D.


            On the other hand, the sweeping landscapes and majestic scenes of nature beg for this enhanced presentation. This is the problem with Wolf Totem; there are just enough things right about it to make the missteps that much more disappointing. It is possible that some of my dissatisfaction stems from ignorance of the material, which is based on Jiang Rong’s best-selling novel, but even that doesn’t explain the difficulty making the human characters relatable onscreen. Many of these relationships are let down by the screenplay, while other sequences involving the wolves are plentiful and often redundantly bleak.


            The story follows the journey of a Beijing student named Chen Zhen (Shaofeng Feng) sent to live for two years among the nomadic sheep herdsmen of Inner Mongolia. Their simplistic existence is interrupted by the famine in to the East, forcing many to begin pillaging the land for meat. This leaves the wolves without a way to survive, and soon they are attacking the flock instead. The domino effect continues, so that Chen Zhen is witness to a major shift in the times during his brief visit. In fact, over the two hours running-time covering these two years, very little of it includes sequences of positive experiences.


            The other thing our protagonist does is take it upon himself to raise a wolf cub under the pretense of education. While all of the other wolves are being hunted down and mercilessly killed through a variety of unpleasant stages, Chen Zhen does his best to keep the one in camp alive. This may sound like the set-up for any number of ‘animal-befriend-man’ narratives, but the relationship between the young wolf and Chen Zhen remains mostly unsentimental. Again, this is not a film that doesn’t play to the empathy of the audience nearly as much as you might expect. While I admire the unwillingness to manipulate emotions from the audience, this also left me somewhat indifferent about the outcome of the narrative.


            The Blu-ray release includes four brief featurettes, with the longest being just over 11-minutes while the shortest is 3. There is a brief profile of director Jean-Jacques Annaud, interviews from the cast, an interview with the real Chen Zhen in a featurette about environmental preservation, but the best extra shows the behind-the-scenes process of training the wolves for the film’s shoot. The 3D version available is not flashy, so 2D may be sufficient for most.


    Entertainment Value: 7/10

    Quality of Filmmaking: 6.5/10

    Historical Significance:  6/10

    Special Features: 5.5/10

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