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.
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.
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