REVIEW: “The Call of the Wild” (2020)

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When prepping to watch “The Call of the Wild” I couldn’t help but wonder which is the greater American classic: Jack London’s timeless 1903 novel or Harrison Ford? If I was honest I’d have to admit that I find Ford to be the bigger draw. But personal bias aside, London’s beloved novel is a significant blind spot for me so I was anxious to see what it was all about.

This latest adaption had its share of pluses and minuses. I’ve already mentioned Ford and the source material as strengths. Add to it a really good supporting cast. On the negative side, a movie with a $150 million budget getting a February release usually isn’t a good sign. And you never know what you’re going to get when there’s such a hefty dependence animal CGI.

Long-time animator, screenwriter, and director Chris Sanders makes his live-action directorial debut, working from a script written by Michael Green (“Logan”, “Blade Runner 2049”). Their lead character is a congenial and rambunctious St. Bernard-Scotch Collie dog named Buck. Here’s the catch, he isn’t played by a real dog at all. He’s an elaborate coat of CGI on top of a fine motion capture performance from the talented Terry Notary. The problem is you never fully forget he is a digital creation despite how impressive he looks.

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Photo: 20th Century Studios

In fairness I’m not sure London’s story could have been told any other way. Buck’s harrowing adventure across the Yukon is filled will action and peril and I simply can’t see a real pup pulling it off. The good thing is there is enough personality in Buck to make him feel like a full-on character. He works best when he is simply being a dog and doing doggie things. It’s when the filmmakers add human expressions that Buck suddenly comes across as fake.

Buck’s overall story is heart-tugging but it’s the human actors who sell it best. Set in the 1890’s during the Gold Rush, the story begins in Santa Clara, California where the clumsy but lovable Buck lives happily with a well-to-do local judge (Bradley Whitford). Gold Fever has driven people to pay top dollar for able dogs to pull sleds in the Yukon where “there’s gold in them thar hills“. Buck is snatched by scoundrels, sold to an abusive trader, and stuck on a freighter bound for the Klondike.

Buck is purchased by Perrault, a kind man who delivers mail across the frozen Yukon. He’s played by the delightful French actor Omar Sy who brings a lot of warmth to the screen. Perrault needs an extra sled dog for his arduous route and sees something special in Buck. But once again not everyone Buck encounters represents the best side of humanity. Dan Stevens is a hoot playing a dastardly business man who only cares about the glittering fortune hidden in the mountains. Stevens’ scene-chewing is fun to watch even though his cruelty towards Buck isn’t.

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Photo: 20th Century Studios

As Buck moves from master to master, he keeps crossing paths with John Thornton (Ford), a tortured lost soul trying to cope with a family tragedy. He also serves as the movie’s narrator. From their first meeting the two seem destined to come together. Both are far from home and both are looking for something more valuable than gold. The grizzled Ford gives an earnest and understated performance, quietly lending pathos to Thornton while doing all he can to help us believe in Buck.

The story plays out through picturesque locations set across the gorgeous Canadian wilderness. Surprisingly, the bulk of it was shot in and around Los Angeles. Most of the stunning backdrops are CGI but so well done that you would never know it otherwise. That makes it easy to get lost in the beautiful, lush scenery.

In “The Call of the Wild” we get a story of a dog who witnesses the best and worst of humanity. Think of it as a Disney-fied “Au Hasard Balthazar” which is still giving it way too much credit. I hear it has been tamed down from the novel which might not sit well with purists, but that’s why I never pit movie against book. When taken on its own merits, it’s a satisfying crowdpleaser. A quick note: be careful with its PG rating. If you have young children go in thinking PG-13 instead.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

16 thoughts on “REVIEW: “The Call of the Wild” (2020)

  1. I enjoyed the post Keith. this is the movie that have seen for this week. but because the book left a strong impact on me, the film came out as a disappointment. one of the reasons is what you pointed out- Buck having “human expressions”.
    nevertheless the book is a blind spot for you, so the review is well understood.
    ps. I read the book only a few years ago. am not sure if it can be depicted in a movie due to the many intense moments. but its a great story.

    • Thanks so much. From the way it sounds this would be a tough movie to make if it really stuck close to the book in spots. That’s why comparing the two can be a little tough. At the same time, if you’re basing your movie on a beloved novel you do open yourself up to that kind of scrutiny. So I can understand how it could be disappointing for some.

  2. Oh… they definitely tamed it down from the book. Let’s just say the “law of club and fang” is portrayed somewhat more graphically on the page than the screen. Had they left it the way it was written, there’s NO WAY it would have been marketed it as a family friend film. I will admit that I am one of those that typically prefers the book version over the movie, although there are some very rare exceptions. While Call of the Wild is not one of those exceptions, I still very much enjoyed the movie for what it was, especially Harrison Ford and Omar Sy. It was nice to see a fun adventure film with a very cute CGI dog who made very cute CGI faces, and who wasn’t put through quite the same untamed and rabid trials of the wilderness as he was in the book. Sometimes, you just need to smile at the antics of a cute doggy! 🙂

  3. I’m glad you liked this one, reading your review makes me like a bit more. I thought it was fine watching but thinking back there just wasn’t much I loved about it. I loved the bits with Omar Sy and that portion of the film (the avalanche and ice scenes are great). Hated Dan Stevens’ character and the CGI was too distracting 😦 Tho, Buck body slamming a Siberian Husky? So ridiculous it’s kind-of brilliant lol.

    • It’s funny, I kinda liked Stevens’ character as an over-the-top vaudevillian type. Impossible to take seriously but fun nevertheless. Still, I can completely see why others wouldn’t go for him. It’s a wacky character and performance.

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