Like the earnest young man it's named after, "Iron Will" (citywide) would blush and protest if any kind of fuss were made over it. Just doing my job, sir, this film would say if it could talk, no need to make me out to be more than I am.
True enough, but it is "Iron Will's" double charm that its aspirations are humble and straightforward and that it fulfills them so completely. Not as slick as "Free Willy" or as sophisticated as "Searching for Bobby Fischer," this is a throwback to the sweet and sentimental Disney family films that Walt himself loved, a live-action fairy tale about a boy, his dogs and a darn tough race.
Set in 1917 and "inspired by" a real event, "Iron Will" shrewdly does not attempt to modernize its story or make it hipper for the nominally more sophisticated kids who are its core audience. It sees the world the same way its open and innocent protagonist, Will Stoneman (Mackenzie Astin) does, as a manageable place where enthusiasm and heart are enough to solve any problem.
A passionate dog-sledder who lives deep in snowbound South Dakota, Will, who has just been accepted to college, is ambivalent about going and no wonder: Who would want to leave a dad like Jack (John Terry), the most understanding guy in 12 states who speaks only in aphorisms like "Don't let fear stand in the way of your dreams" and "If there's something you really want, you've got to go out and grab it."
But then, in a cruel moment that probably accounts for the film's PG rating, Jack dies in an accident and Will must face not only the lack of money for college but the family's financial ruin. Then he remembers the Carnival Derby, "the longest, toughest, richest dog race ever," with a problem-solving $10,000 going to the first team to cross the 500 miles from Winnipeg, Manitoba, to St. Paul, Minn.
Under the tutelage of medicine-ball-throwing family friend Ned Dodd (August Schellenberg), a Native American whose store of tribal aphorisms rivals those of the late Jack, Will toughens himself up for a race across "the meanest stretch of land God ever put together."
And a good thing, too, because in addition to horrendous weather and topological features with names like Heartbreak Hill and Devil's Slide, Will has to face his other competitors. This fierce lot includes Borg Guillarson (George Gerdes), who looks like the Hannibal Lecter of cross-country sledding.
Will also contends with Kevin Spacey's cynical, jaded journalist, who dubs him Iron Will and says things like "This kid will put me on the front page." And he has to earn the respect of the redoubtable Gus, his father's old lead dog that has a heart, not to mention a bite, as big as all outdoors.
All this can be made to sound quite silly, and in some ways it obviously is. But even though a mix-and-match trio of disparate screenwriters (74-year-old John Michael Hayes, who counts "Rear Window" and "To Catch a Thief" among his credits; "Runaway Train's" Djordje Milicevic and "Sleepless in Seattle's" Jeff Arch) are involved, "Iron Will" is unified and made endearing by the simplicity and belief that director Charles Haid and those in front of the camera bring to the personal drama and the pounding races.
Mackenzie Astin, whose first theatrical feature this is (as it is for director Haid), is perfectly cast as Will, bringing to the part not only the ability to look good on a sled but also a convincing rugged innocence and an ease with emotion, a quality he shares with his brother, Sean ("Rudy"), and their mother, Patty Duke.
And don't forget those dogs. Brightly and vividly shot by cinematographer William Wages, the assorted huskies and malamutes look inexpressibly cheerful as they mush through the snow, a good humor that those who embrace the decidedly old-fashioned pleasures of "Iron Will" can easily share.
Mackenzie Astin: Will Stoneman Kevin Spacey: Harry Kingsley David Ogden Stiers: J.P. Harper August Schellenberg: Ned Dodd Brian Cox: Angus McTeague George Gerdes: Borg Guillarson
Released by Walt Disney Pictures. Director Charles Haid. Producers Patrick Palmer, Robert Schwartz. Screenplay John Michael Hayes and Djordje Milicevic and Jeff Arch. Cinematographer William Wages. Editor Andrew Doerfer. Costumes Betty Madden. Music Joel McNeely. Production design Stephen Storer. Art director Nathan Haas. Set decorator Hilton Rosenmarin. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.
MPAA rating: PG. Times guidelines: a brief scene of a father's death by drowning and several dogfights.