Sunday, October 20, 2019

Movie Review: "The Great Alaskan Race" (2019)

Director: Brian Presley
Year: 2019
Rating: PG
Running Time: 1 hour, 27 minutes

When a Diphtheria outbreak hits Nome, Alaska, a team of dog sledders must brave the bitterly harsh cold weather and a 700-mile journey to get the antitoxin from the train station in Nenana back to their city before it's too late.

Brian Presley, Emma Presley, and Brea Bee in a "The Great Alaskan Race" movie still
"He killed that bear, but he never found the wolf." (Image Source)
In an attempt to be Orson Welles, "The Great Alaskan Race" is written by, directed by, and stars Brian Presley. We must say, he's no Orson Wells. Heck, he isn't even M. Night Shyamalan. This film tells the story of the 1925 serum run to Nome, Alaska. When an outbreak of Diptheria hits Nome, the locals fear it could become an epidemic since the town has a scant amount of antitoxin, and what they do have is expired and ineffective. The local mayor calls for help from the governor, who gathers the medicine but has no way to transport it. They have a train take it to Nenana, and a plane standing by that cannot pass a test flight, so the only way to get the medicine the last 700 miles to Nome is by dogsled where a team of mushers will act as a relay to transport the medicine from point to point. The longest and toughest stretch of the run will be done by champion dog sledder Leonhard Seppala (Brian Presley) and his lead dog, the 12-year-old Togo. Leonhard's only daughter, Sigrid (Emma Presley), has fallen ill, so he must race hard and fast if he hopes to get the serum back in time to save her life.
Two of the dogs use in the 2019 film The Great Alaskan Race sit in the snowy wildeness
"The fate of Nome lies in the hands of dogs." (Image Source)
The tagline for "The Great Alaskan Race" should actually be "the amazing true story of the guy who mushed his dog team to pick up some medicine," not "the amazing true story of Togo and Balto." This is the shortest feature film we saw at the San Diego International Film Festival this year, but it certainly felt like the longest (and we sat through "The Irishman," which is 209 minutes long). You'd think that the 1925 serum run to Nome would be a great source of material for an educational-but-adventurous PG-rated film. This subject spawned the 1995 feature "Balto," which is quite a delightful animated flick. Unfortunately, and it pains us to say this because this is very clearly a passion project for Brian Presley, what he has delivered is a dull, mostly uneventful slog that fails to fully capture the vast human achievement that was the serum run. The plot consists of exactly this: "tragedy, sweeping wide shot of snowy mountains, prayer, song, "serum," prayer, sweeping wide shot of snowy mountains, song, prayer, prayer, "serum," sweeping wide shot of snowy mountains and a small trek outside, prayer, song, end." Part of the problem is that the script fails to develop the characters in a way that gets the audience invested in their plight. Presley places himself in the heroic role of Seppala, who is sold as a stoic man who has faced much grief in his life. Despite the endless pain he has endured, we never found ourselves connected with Seppala or any other character for that matter, not Sigrid, not the town's doctor, Dr. Welch (Treat Williams), not mayor Maynard (Brad Leland), not the film's would-be love interest Constance (Brea Bee), no one. In a movie that proclaims "dogs come first," we couldn't even get invested in Togo, Balto, or the other sledding dogs because they feel like an afterthought more than they do an integral part of Seppala's journey. William Fentress Thompson (Henry Thomas) is brought in to be a would-be villain of sorts as he advocates for delivering the serum via plane since he holds stock in an airline, but he offers no real conflict other than presenting a failed idea. He's not actually a villain.

As with many adventure stories, the primary source of conflict should have come from its "man versus nature" premise, but Presley either lacked the time or the budget to sell the harsh conditions adequately. The end of the film is supposed to take place in a big winter blizzard, but the snowstorm has obviously and poorly been added in post-production, so it's no surprise when hair and fur don't blow any more than it would if a light breeze had rolled through the air. This takes us to our second issue. Despite being a true story, this world doesn't feel authentic, and it doesn't feel lived-in. The buildings look brand new by today's standards, everyone is far too clean for 1925 (until the very end of the film), haircuts and beards have modern trim-lines and are extremely well-kempt, and the sepia-tinged newsreel breaks feel more gimmicky than an attempt to capture the era. Some people might find these minor complaints to be nitpicking, but for us, it only added to the inauthentic feel of it all.
Seppala (Brian Presley) mushes his dogs to try and get serum in a movie scene for The Great Alaskan Race about the 1925 serum run to Noma, Alaska
"It is time for us to stop talking and get that medicine." (Image Source)
It brings us no joy to say that "The Great Alaskan Race" is not a good movie. What should have been an inspiring tale about an against all odds, tension-filled race against the clock felt like taking a plodding cross-country trip in a Yugo. You know how this movie is going to end before it even begins, but the hope is that the journey to the finish line will be worth it. It's not. It doesn't even have the dogs to fall back on.

My Rating: 2.5/10
BigJ's Rating: 2.5/10
IMDB's Rating: ~7.0/10
RT Rating: ---%
Do we recommend this movie: AVOID LIKE THE PLAGUE!!!

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