Based on James Oliver Curwood’s 1919 novel Nomads of the North, Disney’s Nikki, Wild Dog of the North was theatrically released on July 12, 1961. The live action nature adventure is seventy-four minutes in length.
In the Canadian northwest of 1899, a kindly fur trader named Andre Dupas (Jean Coutu) travels with his three-month-old malamute, Nikki, towards the fur company’s headquarters, where Dupas plans to order supplies for his trading post. Making a short portage near Big Thunder Falls, Nikki wanders off and befriends a bear cub, Neewa, whose mother, Noozak, is concurrently killed by an angry male bear named Makoos. Because of Noozak’s death, Dupas elects to take Neewa along with himself and Nikki, and the trio continues its journey down the river. Unfortunately for all involved, however, the animals are swept away in the rapids and have no realistic way to reunite with their human companion. Where will the road lead Nikki and Neewa?
With limited dialogue, great vistas of natural beauty, and plenty of animal shenanigans, Nikki, Wild Dog of the North is a more sophisticated version of the installments of Walt Disney’s “True-Life Adventures” series, a string of thirteen nature-based films released by the Disney Studio between Seal Island in 1949 and Jungle Cat in 1960. (1) The main difference between the “True-Life Adventures” installments and Nikki is the discernable plot in the latter; as such, Nikki is for all intents and purposes one of Disney’s “True-Life Fantasy” films. Although only Perri (1957) officially garnered this label, other films, including Big Red (1962), The Incredible Journey (1963), and Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar (1967), followed a similar formula, incorporating an overt story and oftentimes human characters in addition to the antics of nature. (2) Since 2007, Disney has released a series of nature-based documentaries under the “Disneynature” label.
Although the focus on nature in Nikki, Wild Dog of the North prevents the human characters from being optimally developed, the bombastic and violent demeanor of the fur trader Jacques Lebeau (Émile Genest) creates a great antagonist. Lebeau does not appear often during Nikki, but you will be hard pressed to not oppose him during the climactic battle scenes.
While Nikki and Neewa have different habits and needs, they work together to ensure their mutual happiness and survival while isolated in the wilderness, the unorthodox alliance only being broken by Neewa’s mandatory winter hibernation. Indeed, contrary to Dupas’s doubts about the ability of a dog to befriend a bear, seeming opposites can become great friends.
Nikki features numerous exciting moments. Along the way, Makoos battles Neewa and Noozak; Dupas navigates turbulent rapids in his canoe; Nikki and Neewa descend a waterfall and struggle against swift river current; Nikki and Neewa struggle to compromise on sleeping patterns, food, and other matters; a pack of wolves chases an elk; Nikki fights a wolverine over a dead rabbit; Neewa fights a sequel with Makoos; and Nikki persists in thwarting the evil schemes of Lebeau and that antagonist’s hesitant Native American assistant, Makiki (Uriel Luft).
Most of the laughs in Nikki, Wild Dog of the North arise from witty utterances by narrator Jacques Fauteux and the visuals that correspond with these lines. For example, during Neewa’s first foray outside the den, the cub “[finds] out right away what a river [is].” Google’s dictionary defines a river as “a large natural stream of water flowing in a channel to the sea, a lake, or another such stream,” but Neewa disagrees with this definition: to the cub, a river is simply “cold and wet.”
Neewa’s misinterpretation of a marmot’s anger as “an invitation to play” leads to the former critter’s “first downfall.” Indeed, the cub tumbles down an incline while trying to chase the marmot.
When Neewa becomes separated from his mother, Fauteux describes the conundrum as Noozak, rather than the cub, getting lost. Immediately thereafter, the narrator expresses certainty that a bear hiding behind a rock is Noozak; unfortunately for the cub, the bear in question is Makoos.
Nikki wakes up so hungry that he could eat a horse! Unfortunately for the title character, there are no horses in the vicinity; only a rabbit and some sour berries.
Neewa “disposes of one last link with the past” after awakening one morning towards the middle of the film: he frees himself from the rope that had hung around his neck since the fateful canoe accident and that had literally tied him to Nikki for most of their journey until the dog broke free to follow the scent of Lebeau.
After the canine fails to capture a muskrat and an elk, a mouse also escapes and “mocks” Nikki. Don’t worry Disney fans; the mouse in question is definitely not Mickey!
Nikki, Wild Dog of the North’s soundtrack is mediocre. Several French lyrical numbers add little to the film and are unaccompanied by subtitles; as such, viewers who do not speak French will be ignorant of the contents. The background music, as is the case in most Disney films, is excellent, appropriately complementing the nature of the on-screen action. For example, foreboding tunes accompany the battle scenes, and whimsical music accompanies the scene where Nikki and Neewa play in the snow.
Relationship to Other Disney Films
Emile Genest subsequently contributed to Big Red and The Incredible Journey for Disney.
Dogs also played major roles in Lady and the Tramp (1955), Old Yeller (1957), The Shaggy Dog (1959, 2006), One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), Greyfriars Bobby (1961), Big Red, The Incredible Journey, The Ugly Dachshund (1966), The Biscuit Eater (1972), The Shaggy D.A. (1976), The Fox and the Hound (1981), Oliver and Company (1988), White Fang (1991), Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993), White Fang 2: Myth of the White Wolf (1994), Homeward Bound II: Lost in San Francisco (1996), 101 Dalmatians (1996), Air Bud (1997), Air Bud: Golden Receiver (1998), 102 Dalmatians (2000), Snow Dogs (2002), Beverly Hills Chihuahua (2008), and Bolt (2008).
Bears were also prominently featured in Fun and Fancy Free (1947), King of the Grizzlies (1970), The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), A Tale of Two Critters (1977), The Country Bears (2002), Brother Bear (2003), Winnie the Pooh (2011), and Christopher Robin (2018).
Surprising friendships between animals are also formed in The Incredible Journey, A Tale of Two Critters, and The Fox and the Hound.
Native Americans were also prominently featured in Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955), Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956), Westward Ho, the Wagons! (1956), The Light in the Forest (1958), Tonka (1958), Savage Sam (1963), Those Calloways (1965), Treasure of Matecumbe (1976), The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979), and Pocahontas (1995).
In the Parks
Canada is among eleven countries to be represented by a pavilion in the World Showcase section of Epcot. A Circle-Vision 360° film, “O Canada!”; the “Le Cellier” steakhouse; and beautiful gardens are the highlights of this pavilion.
The rapids in Nikki are called “Big Thunder Falls.” A roller coaster attraction called “Big Thunder Mountain Railroad” is featured at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and the Disneyland Parks in California, Tokyo, and Paris.
Respective canoe attractions, “Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes,” “Beaver Brothers Explorer Canoes,” and “Explorer Canoes,” are offered at the Disneyland parks in California, Tokyo, and Shanghai.
Whitewater rapids attractions, “Kali River Rapids,” “Grizzly River Run,” and “Roaring Rapids,” are featured at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Disney California Adventure, and Shanghai Disneyland Park, respectively.
Adventures by Disney is offering itineraries to the Canadian Rockies throughout the summer of 2019.
Disney Cruise Line offers periodic itineraries along Canada’s coastlines.
A combination of animal antics, Fauteux’s witty narration, and surprisingly-engaging human characters makes Nikki, Wild Dog of the North a simple but enjoyable ride.
1) Jim Korkis, “Walt and the True-Life Adventures,” The Walt Disney Family Museum, February 9, 2012, accessed September 27, 2018, https://www.waltdisney.org/blog/walt-and-true-life-adventures.
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