Judge William Lee loves the smell of whiteout in the morning.
A saga of men, dogs, wild animals and great frozen wonders.
Described as a French adventurer, explorer, writer and moviemaker, Nicolas Vanier takes his inspiration from the land that inspired author Jack London—the breathtaking landscapes of the frozen North. His expeditions often involve retracing historic trails and he's covered terrain such as Lapland, Siberia, Mongolia and the Yukon. Whether crossing on foot or utilizing horses, sled dogs, or canoes, his adventures push the limits of human endurance in harsh climates.
White Odyssey is Vanier's documentary, produced for French television, chronicling his 1999 journey across the Great White North with a pack of sled dogs. Starting out from Skagway, Alaska the 100-day route over the Rockies and through the Canadian North to Quebec stretches more than 8,600 kilometers (5,344 miles). With temperatures dropping as low as -40 degrees Celsius, Vanier places his team and himself at considerable risk even with the best preparations in place.
Since this documentary doesn't provide much in the way of an introduction to Mr. Vanier, I performed a quick Internet search for his biography only to find English language entries were quite sparse. Following the expedition featured on this DVD, he has gone on to write books and make a feature-length film, The Last Trapper. Though I was unaware of Vanier's reputation prior to this film, I suspect he is better known in France and among those northern communities where residents find it normal when someone is introduced as a "professional musher." White Odyssey definitely speaks to that audience and like-minded outdoor enthusiasts. As he progresses on his journey, we're told that the local communities are excited about Vanier's undertaking and they're coming out to see him. On screen, it appears as though he's only attracting a few individual supporters. That probably speaks to the relative population of those remote regions, however, and by the time he starts his approach on Quebec City there is a sizable crowd cheering him on.
What does it take to accomplish a dogsled crossing of the Canadian North? Vanier's pack of tough and disciplined dogs—a cross between a Siberian hunting dog and a Greenlander bitch—are magnificent animals. It also helps to have a team of experts for technical and moral support. For this adventure, the extra hands include a cook, a trapper, and a philosopher. An indispensable component of the expedition is the advance team of two snowmobiles that carve out the path for the sled. The dogs are helpless when they're stuck up to their necks in soft snow, so it's the job of the snowmobiles to compact the snow into a visible trail.
The inherent danger of the journey doesn't come across too well in this film. The viewer is dropped into this world without so much as an introduction to the locale. It isn't explained why Vanier has chosen to tackle this challenge or who is bankrolling it. Consequently, a viewer meeting Vanier for the first time might assume he is a crazy rich guy with an appetite for adventure. There are occasions when the team is delayed by weather or find themselves off course, so they all stand around fretting. The drama that might have come out of these moments is quickly dismissed when, in the next scene, the sled is moving again under sunny skies. When a snowstorm stops you in your tracks, I can't imagine there's much more to do other than setting up shelter and waiting it out so those scenes cut together is likely true to how the days' events unfolded. However, the repeating juxtaposition of blizzards and perfect weather makes the visual narrative of the film seem like disconnected moments strung together.
The English voice-over narration on this DVD from SKD keeps the viewer at arm's length from the action. The program's original audio track is turned down and English voice actors provide translation of the French dialogue. The English voices are reasonably timed with the scenes but they sound stiff and disconnected from the visuals. It doesn't help that underneath the British accents you can still hear the faint French dialogue. The camera also has a tendency to look away from the persons speaking so the dialogue always feels like it's taking place outside of the scene. As the original audio is turned down in favor of the English-dialogue recording, the quality of the sound effects and music is also sacrificed.
Shot on video, the 1.33:1 full frame picture is of satisfactory quality. Considering how the frame is mostly white, the cinematography manages to capture a good amount of detail. The winter landscapes are truly gorgeous, especially the footage when the team is passing through the Rocky Mountains, and I enjoyed the scenery for at least 40 minutes before it started to feel tedious. After a while, one frozen wilderness is as impressive as the last and it's difficult to see any geographical distinction between them. Also, I wish they could have cleaned the camera lens more often because the frequent water drops and dirt that end up on screen are distracting.
Taking into account the mechanical and technological advantages available to an "explorer" in 1999, I don't dismiss Vanier's remarkable feat. Among the moments that I appreciate in this film are seeing the trapper's skill with a slingshot, observing the power of those dogs and taking in those views of the Arctic wilderness. Where White Odyssey comes up short is that it doesn't make this a compelling adventure to outsiders who don't know anything about Vanier or the tradition of rugged living in the North. It doesn't speak to mainstream viewers and consequently feels like Vanier's fancy video diary.
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