The Call of the Wild is the latest adaptation of the iconic Jack London novel, although instead of using for real animals the movie goes with CGI animals. It creates an odd disconnect since it is an old–timey real–world story and then there’s a cartoon dog at the centre. Yet despite sometimes wobbly effects, you eventually feel for the poor mutt. Harrison Ford adds humanity and warmth as the dog’s owner which is needed since the movie is often stuck in an uncanny valley of real and unreal.
In the late 1800s, Buck the dog (a CGI creation that is credited to actor Terry Notary on set) is living the high life in California with Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford) until one day Buck is dognapped and taken to Alaska. He ends up as a dogsled member for mail delivery service consisting of the wacky Perrault (Omar Sy) and the exasperated Francoise (Cara Gee). Buck learns to live in the wilderness and has his troubles with the leader of the pack. When Buck is sold to new owners, Hal (Dan Stevens), Mercedes (Karen Gillan) and Charles (Colin Woodell), the dogs are mistreated and overworked. This draws the sympathy of John Thornton (Ford), and while Buck may find a new sense of happiness with the old man, danger is lurking as Buck is becoming more interested in the larger wildness every day.
The Call of the Wild is one of Disney’s big releases after acquiring 20th Century Fox films and the logo at the front of the movie has been changed to 20th Century Films, although confusingly the end credit still says 20th Century Fox Films. It was intended as a Fox release for Christmas and Disney pushed it to February. It has the warm and fuzzy feel of both a Christmas release and a Disney family adventure. At its worst moments it seems like Harrison Ford acting with nothing there; there’s also a scene that is supposed to be a harrowing escape for a wintry avalanche that devolves into weightless CGI nonsense. The trick with FX heavy movies is the setting should complement the effects; in a sci–fi or superhero movie the unreality of the visuals helps. When a movie is supposed to be an old timey adventure set in the real world, overtly CGI looking effects is tonally jarring. Although the environments do look impressive, despite being set in 1800s Alaska the movie was shot in Los Angeles. Extending an environment digitally is an invisible trick, making real life creatures is a bit more difficult.
The dog at the centre of the movie flops between believable and blatant FX trickery. Still sometimes the dog does look very good, as the first shot of it walking along it seems totally a part of the world, but other times the dog will do outlandish human–like emoting. But when the dog is hurt or sad, the audience feels it. There is this odd recurring motif when Buck keeps seeing a giant ebony wolf who appears out of nowhere that is never quite explained, maybe it’s meant to represent literally the call of the wild but honestly it feels like Buck is being randomly visited by a Wolf Force Ghost or something.
Ford narrates the film very sagely, telling the audience what Buck is feeling at any given moment. Although since Ford is narrating it makes waiting for him to show up as a character a bit irritating as he isn’t really involved until the second half. As Thornton, Ford gets a tragic backstory which is a cheap way to garner sympathy. He also has a drinking problem which leads to a funny if unbelievable scene where Buck the dog buries his booze. Ford makes the buddy relationship with the non–existent CGI dog believable. Probably one of the movie’s best scenes is when Thornton is panning for gold and Buck picks up a gold piece about the size of someone’s fist and then immediately drops it as Thornton is completely oblivious.
There is also a decent ensemble of character actors throughout. Whitford as Buck’s original owner adds heft to a brief part. The mail carriers that adopt Buck have good chemistry as Perrault is determined to deliver the mail on time even though he never succeeds. His partner just rolls her eyes, but his perpetually upbeat attitude makes him endearing. The trio of idiots who disrupt Buck’s peaceful life are good antagonists. Karren Gillian has about a dozen lines but she still gets fourth billing in the credits. Her drunken lout ways are amusing as the other guy who tags along seems totally clueless as well. The ultimate baddie is Stevens’ Hal who is a snarling rich man cliché, complete with evil mustache. Stevens is loud and campy but it’s entertaining, and he serves as the climatic villain replacing a murderous tribe of Indians in the original text. This is probably for the best because making the baddies murderous natives in 2020 could a bit problematic.
As an adventure movie, The Call of the Wild has some fun and thrilling scenes even if the CGI animals works against the throwback vibe. But there is enough heartwarming and epic moments that makes it a mostly enjoyable journey. Just don’t look too closely. V
THE CALL OF THE WILD
Director: Chris Sanders
Starring: Harrison Ford,
Omar Sy and Cara Gee