The success of Jean-Jacques Annaud's handsome lupine adventure Wolf Totem relies in large part on the ratio between wolf and totem. There are wolves -- those howling, majestic hunters of the Mongolian grasslands — and then there are the many things they stand for: freedom, teamwork, the delicate harmony of nature, and the devastating encroachment of civilization on centuries-old tradition. (And that's just for starters.) Whenever Annaud and his cinematographer, Jean-Marie Dreujou, chase the pack across lush green hills and arid plains, Wolf Totem has the elemental beauty of a Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion) production or the better sequences from The Bear, Annaud's simple, affecting 1988 film. Whenever it pauses to consider, say, how the declining wolf population reflects the thoughtless dictates of the Cultural Revolution, the film bites off more gazelle meat than it can chew.
Though based on Jiang Rong's popular semi-autobiographical novel, which drew on his own experience as a herder for eleven years in Inner Mongolia, this French-Chinese production plays something like a repurposed Dances With Wolves. In the Kevin Costner role, there's Chen Zhen (Feng Shaofeng), a feckless student from Beijing who's sent to help civilize the Mongolian nomads and carve out a place for migrating Han Chinese. Eventually, he runs with the tribe. He has a Mary McDonnell in Gasma (Ankhnyam Ragchaa), the widowed daughter of the wise chief Bilig (Basen Zhabu), and he takes in a wolf cub, too, that rivals Costner's "Two Socks" for fluffy, yelping adorability.
There are striking images, but Wolf Totem becomes a pitched battle for supremacy between the breathtaking glories of nature and the grinding banality of man. Here, as ever, nature loses.