Inspired by a screenplay by Jim Kouf and Tommy Swerdlow & Michael Goldberg and Mark Gibson & Philip Halprin, which itself took is premise from Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod by Gary Paulsen
We open in Miami. Dr. Theodore “Ted”/”Teddy Bear” Brooks (Cuba Gooding Jr.) has come home for the funeral of his adoptive mother, Amelia, with wife Barb (Joanna Bacalso), two young children, and several huskies in tow. His cousin, Rupert (Sisqó), picks them up from the airport and takes them directly to the wake. Tragedy turns to levity when the dogs excitedly play with the many children of the Brooks extended family, allowing the adults to reflect on the pure innocence and joy of the next generation. Although some family members are disappointed that Ted abandoned the family that raised him, they warm up to him and his new life.
At the funeral, Ted tosses an intricate Inuit necklace, left behind by his birth mother, onto Amelia’s casket while the others toss roses and dirt. Later, at the reading of the will, Ted is shocked by a new revelation: Thunder Jack, who had married Amelia before passing away, was wrong about being his birth father. His real birth father was a Nepali sherpa who had migrated to Alaska looking for freedom and opportunity. Amelia spent her last years tracking down Ted’s real father, but she died before she found him. She bequeaths everything she found before dying.
Luckily, Rupert has parlayed his successful dental practice into a sideline business as a part-time private investigator. (He considers a dentist to be the private detective of the mouth.) Ted, Barb, and Rupert are surprised by how close Amelia came to finding the right man. She had found the man’s name, but not what had happened to him after he put Ted up for adoption. Rupert learns that the father was accused of killing a man in a barfight, so he fled the country. He tracks him back to his Nepali village, where he has lived a quiet life to this day.
At first, Ted resists tracking his father down. Why should he search for a drunken murderer who abandoned him? Barb calmly points out that maybe there’s more to his story, reminding him that Thunder Jack turned out to be deeply sad about giving up the child he thought was Ted for adoption, and as a result rejected the world to become a grizzled old mountain man. She urges him to go to Nepal while she, the kids, and the dogs get to know the family in Miami. Ted thanks her, they begin kissing, and the camera pans to a flickering fireplace.
When Ted arrives in Nepal, he struggles with the language and cultural barrier in his attempts to get to the mountain village where his father was last seen. Finally, he finds an English-speaking half-Nepali raised in America, Nick (Horatio Sanz), who assumes Ted got lost on a ski trail. Wisecracking Nick tries hard to get into Ted’s good graces, thinking he’s a wealthy tourist who might hire him as a sherpa. Ted is puzzled at first, until Nick shows him a view of the other side of the plateau, where a massive resort for westerners has been built. Nick explains that he’s desperate to succeed as a sherpa, but the villagers rejected him and the clientele of the resort don’t consider him exotic enough to hire. They want real sherpas to help him scale the foreboding peaks surrounding the village. Most suggest that he apply to be a ski lift operator.
Nick quickly realizes Ted’s father is the village elder—who passed away just that night. The village sherpas take that as a sign that Ted was fated to take his father’s place. As is their custom, they give him the inheritance gift of nine feral cats. Baffled and overwhelmed, Ted asks for Nick’s help in managing the cats. Nick resists at first, but he’s humbled when Ted offers Nick a ceremonial knife left behind by his father. However, neither of them realize that in this culture, such a knife is only passed to a loved one, so throughout the rest of the movie, the native villagers assume Ted and Nick are a gay couple. Their frequent “cat fights” only reinforce this assumption. Nick, after agreeing to help Ted, sees an opportunity. He heard the sherpas talking about a “snow cat” challenge, and he thinks if he enters the race with Ted’s cats, he’ll make a name for himself and gain the respect of the sherpas. Ted, wanting to reconnect with his (real) heritage, agrees to sign up for the race.
When they arrive on race day, both Ted and Nick are horrified to learn that it’s not a “snow cat” race—the resort has turned it into a Sno-Cat® race!! It consists of nothing more than rich white tourists vying for the prize money, plowing their way through mountain trails. Undaunted, Ted decides he’ll win the race the pure way—but Nick abandons him to team up with greedy land developer Edgar Willoughby III (Michael Ironside), who will do whatever it takes to win.
The race itself is a combination of The Tortoise and the Hare and a slobs-versus-snobs story. Ted struggles to keep up with the race, often encountering competitors who simply mock him and drive on. He also has trouble with the cats, who have little interest in working together to drive the sled. However, his cat-driven sled is able to slip through passes the Sno-Cat®s can’t, so as he gains on the Sno-Cat® racers, they take him more seriously—and treat him more aggressively. It reaches a boiling point when Willoughby, in first place, forces Nick to cut the reins on Ted’s sled. Nick is reluctant, but Willoughby reminds him of the fame and fortune that will follow a victory. Visibly pained, Nick uses the ceremonial knife Ted gave him earlier to slice the reins.
Angry, humiliated, and alone in the snowy mountains, Ted has a crisis of faith. He knows he’ll never win, he knows he’s a failure and an embarrassment to his father’s legacy. In his rage, he’s about to destroy the sled—when he realizes the cats are, for the first time, working together to jerry-rig the cut-up reins so they can continue pulling. Ted marvels at their intelligence and teamwork, and he realizes humans can learn a lot from feral cats. Working together with the cats, the sled gets going again.
Meanwhile, Willoughby sees a few other Sno-Cat®s gaining on them. He decides to change course through a treacherous pass that doesn’t appear on his map. Nick warns him against it, but Willoughby is driven to win. He can’t risk the humiliation of losing on his own turf to his rich friends. They plow through the tight pass—and come out on the edge of a sheer cliff, without enough width to contain the whole Sno-Cat®. It dangles precariously on the edge, threatening to fall. Willoughby and Nick try to keep their weight balanced so it doesn’t fall, but it’s impossible to move forward.
Ted, able to pass through on his smaller sled, approaches the scene, shaking his head at their recklessness. He could easily lead his cats around the Sno-Cat®, and it’s tempting after what Nick did to him—but he just can’t. For him, it’s about honor and personal integrity. He unharnesses the cats and uses the patched-together reins as a sort of rope to help Nick and Willoughby climb out of the Sno-Cat® before it falls. At first, Willoughby refuses—and prevents Nick from escaping—but when faced between the two men, Nick realizes who he should have partnered with from the beginning. He shoves Willoughby aside and climbs out of the Sno-Cat®—
—but the force of his push, and the redistribution of weight, causes the Sno-Cat® to fall over the edge. Willoughby grabs Nick’s ankle, and both dangle over the edge of the cliff, only held together by strands of leather tied together by cats. Ted struggles to pull them up, but he sees the knots loosening. That’s when the cats reenter the picture, using their jaws and body weight to keep the reins together and help Ted pull Nick and Willoughby back up to safety. Willoughby is so moved by Ted’s courage, honor, and commitment that he awards Ted the prize money, even though they both have technically lost the race. The actual winner is livid, especially when Willoughby tells him there are more important things than money. Ted decides to split the prize money with Nick, so he can start his own sherpa business.
One year later, Ted, Barb, the kids, the dogs, and the cats have resettled in the Himalayan village. The final scene is a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new joint dental practice, cat ranch, and sherpa training center, built by Willoughby and named after Amelia, Thunder Jack, and Ted’s Nepali father. Despite the presence of Ted’s wife and children, the villagers still assume Ted and Nick are a gay couple.