The true story of a shockingly demanding childhood is brought to enjoyable, undemanding life in “Among Wolves,” Gerardo Olivares’ simply told, visually sumptuous take on a boy’s years spent living alone in the Spanish wild in the 1960s. Olivares focuses on turning the startling facts into an eco-friendly, inspirational tale of adversity overcome, replete with terrific nature footage; result is a solid, honest-to-goodness piece of family entertainment. First weekend B.O. at home was strong, and offshore territories will likely want a bite of a universally themed item with little tricky foreign dialogue.
In its bare outlines, the plot follows the barely credible truth. Seven-year-old Marcos (Manuel Angel Camacho) is sold to landowner Don Honesto (Jose Manuel Soto) by his impoverished parents (Vicente Romero and Luisa Martin). Left by Honesto’s cruel sidekick, Ceferino (Carlos Bardem), in a remote sierra location to help goatherd Atanasio (Sancho Gracia), the young boy slowly comes to an understanding with the older man.
However, in a scene milked to the max, Atanasio falls ill and dies, his body becoming vulture fodder in one of the pic’s truly grim scenes. Marcos is hungry, ragged and reduced to sucking on goats’ teats for nourishment, and has only a pet ferret for company, but when a wolf senses his plight and leaves a chunk of fresh meat for him on a rock, things start to look up.
Though far from gritty realism, pic is neither excessively sentimental nor overblown, only occasionally stretching credibility and generally conveying the sense that events are grounded in solid research. Characterization is slim, with thesps — mostly playing gruff rural types — efficiently delivering what’s expected, though the strongest scenes are the lengthy, dialogue-free sequences in which Marcos learns his craft. Dark-eyed Camacho acquits himself well in an extended role, and is cute without being cutesy: Parents will want to take him home, while kids will identify with his adventures.
A leap forward in time brings in an older, shaggier, more feral Marcos (the already wolfish-visaged Juan Jose Ballesta) for about 20 minutes at the end. (The emphasis on Ballesta in the Spanish marketing materials inflates his significance to the story.)
Olivares’ passion for the natural world is as infectiously apparent here as it was in 2006’s “The Great Match.” “Among Wolves” was effectively a double shoot — one with people, one with animals, spliced together painstakingly and seamlessly. If Marcos is animal-like and the men are animals, then the animals themselves are attractively personified. A shot of a valley from the wolves’ point of view, underground shots of a ferret hunting a rabbit, and slo-mo night shots of birds in flight initially feel out of place, but part of the pic’s aim is to show urban kids of today that nature is to be loved and respected rather than feared, and here it definitively succeeds.
Scenes featuring animal-human interaction are likewise beautifully realized, defusing potential complaints about their dramatic viability.
Superb soundwork serves as an involving complement to the unfailingly stunning, richly toned visuals. The score, though sometimes pretty, tends toward the strident. The real-life Marcos Rodriguez, who lived among wolves for 12 years, is present for the film’s quietly moving coda.