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'Iron Will' Has a Heart of Gold

January 20, 1994|JIM WASHBURN | Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition.

In Disney's "Iron Will," a teen-ager embarks on a grueling dog-sled race in 1917, from Winnipeg, Manitoba, to St. Paul, Minn. In it he is pitted against "the meanest stretch of land God ever put together" as well as human adversaries who are equally lacking in manners. (Rated PG)

There are some movies that make viewers want to shout and applaud. Rarer still are the ones that actually do make them shout and applaud. That's just the effect "Iron Will" had on its audience, largely children with parents, at a recent screening in Costa Mesa.

Though its title suggests a Schwarzenegger blow-'em-up, in this case Iron Will is a nickname given to Will Stoneman (Mackenzie Astin), a 17-year-old who, though he has witnessed the sledding death of his father, enters a torturous 522-mile dog-sled race to win the money to save his family's farm.

This is one of the most Disney Disney films in years, and, as such, it doesn't want for simple plot devices or stereotypes. In it, cynical newspaperman Harry Kingsley (Kevin Spacey) trumps up the tale of Will and the race with the hyperbole common in 1917 to a nation needing heroes, and the film's makers have nearly done the same.

Will is about as good and pure as a character gets, as are his briefly met father and Native American friend Ned Dodd (August Schellenberg), who trains him for the race. On the darker side are villainous robber barons, vicious dogs and sledding rival Borg Guillarson (George Gerdes), who is one mean Swede.

But even with such pat delineations and the outcome nearly guaranteed, first-time film director Charles Haid (formerly in front of the camera on TV's "Hill Street Blues") has created an exciting, heart-tugging movie, crafted with a story-propelling surety and some moments of pure cinematic grace.

"Iron Will" is as decidedly un-modern as its rural 1917 setting. The closest thing to profanity in it is newsman Kingsley's utterance, "Holy Chicago." And, unlike most of the filmic fare kids see now, there are no high-tech special effects, ultra-violent scenes or exploding cars. Instead, there is just a boy, his dogs and a lot of snow. OK, plus a dog-kicking Swede and a cliff or two.

None of the kids questioned felt shortchanged by "Iron Will's" old-fashioned qualities.

"It didn't need a lot of effects to make it good. It was an exciting story already," said Ryan Stockwell, 10, of Costa Mesa. As is often the case with climactic competition films, Ryan's (and other kids') favorite part was the end.

Though Will's father wasn't in the film much, a little bit of a good dad clearly goes a long way with children: Ryan said it made him sad when Will's dad's sled slid into the river. Other kids said they were disturbed by the scene as well, though Ryan's 6-year-old sister, Amanda, said it didn't bother her especially. She's made of stern stuff; I was blubbering then, and at all the other expected junctures of the tale.

"I also didn't like when that guy was so mean," declared James Winegar, 7, of Newport Beach, referring to Borg, who does spend a disproportionate amount of his screen time sneering at his rivals, brandishing knives and whipping dogs. Outside of that, James said, "I liked it a lot--the dogs, the race, the whole thing. I saw 'Mrs. Doubtfire' and 'The Air Up There,' and I liked this the most. It had everything."

While at least one 3-year-old fell asleep during the film's hour-and-49-minute running time, and his 5-year-old brother grew restless until the end roused him, other kids found it engrossing throughout, and worthy of cheer at the finish line. Their parents were no less enthusiastic.

Ryan and Amanda's dad, Bob Stockwell, said: "It was a good human interest story. It had a true ring to it. It reminds me of all the Jack London stories I read as a kid."

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