'The Call of the Wild': Film Review

What, no real dogs were available?
2/21/2020

Harrison Ford and a CGI-generated dog star in the latest screen adaptation of Jack London's classic 1903 adventure novel.

There have been movie adaptations of Jack London's classic 1903 novel The Call of the Wild dating as far back as a silent 1923 version. Cinematic treatments continued in the 1930s with an adaptation starring Clark Gable and Loretta Young, and subsequent versions had lead actors that included Charlton Heston and Rutger Hauer. All of these films had at least one thing in common: They starred a real damn dog.

Such, unfortunately, is not the case with the latest version, starring Harrison Ford as the good-hearted prospector John Thornton, who forms a bond during the Yukon Gold Rush with a St. Bernard/Scotch Collie canine named Buck. In a blow to animal employment in the acting profession, Buck, who boasts the vast majority of the onscreen time, is played not by one or more actual dogs but rather Terry Notary, a very human former Cirque du Soleil performer who delivers a motion-capture performance. Such is also the case with the many other dogs and other animals shown, giving this Call of the Wild a similar feel to such recent Disney photorealistic animated films as The Jungle Book and The Lion King. It's not surprising that the film marks the live-action debut of director Chris Sanders, whose previous credits include Lilo & Stitch, How to Train Your Dragon and The Croods.

The results are visually disorienting, to say the least. Although Notary and the special effects team do as good a job as technology allows, the expressive Buck never quite looks real. And you keep expecting him and the rest of the animals to burst into song.

On the other hand, it might have been a reasonable approach, since this version scripted by Michael Green takes considerable liberties with the source material and significantly ups the danger and spectacle. The Buck in this film isn't just a fearless, stout-hearted dog; he also engages in a daring underwater rescue in a frozen river and even outruns an avalanche. Apparently, the creators felt that London's tale wasn't exciting enough, although it has been delighting readers for more than a century.

None of this may matter to the young audiences to whom the pic is obviously aimed. But more discerning viewers will wince at how everything has been exaggerated to comic proportions, both intentional and not. In the early scenes depicting Buck's spoiled life in the household of a prosperous family headed by Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford, in little more than a cameo), he wreaks the sort of slapstick havoc that would have caused Beethoven to hang his head in shame.

A significant plot element involves Buck falling under the temporary ownership of the siblings Hal (Dan Stevens) and Mercedes (Karen Gillan), the former foolishly insisting that Buck lead a pack of dogs over a frozen river despite the fact that the ice is melting. In the original novel, they, along with Mercedes' husband Charles (Colin Woodell), wind up drowning. Here, Hal is transformed into a snarling villain who bedevils Buck and Thornton to the very end, with the normally reliable Stevens encouraged to deliver the sort of moustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash turn that makes Hal seem like an animated character himself.  

Fortunately, Ford, sporting a burly white beard, is on hand to lend some nuance to the proceedings. The veteran actor delivers a sensitive turn as the kindly Thornton, who still grieves the death of his son and subsequent split from his wife and nurses his sorrow with alcohol. (Unable to resist any anthropomorphism, the film has Buck repeatedly trying to take away Thornton's booze, like a canine AA sponsor.) Seeming more invested onscreen than he's been in a while, Ford infuses his typically understated performance with a moving emotional depth that's the best thing in the film, although the fact that he narrates the story as well (from Buck's perspective, no less) is more reflective of his star power than storytelling logic.  

Running a mere 100 minutes, the film certainly moves briskly enough, and it looks terrific, thanks to the handsome cinematography by two-time Oscar-winner Janusz Kaminski. Particularly fun are the scenes in which Buck becomes part of a mail-delivering sled dog team led by a French-Canadian couple enjoyably played by Omar Sy and Cara Gee. And the final sequences, depicting Buck's inevitably succumbing to the call of the wild and bonding with a pack of timber wolves, are moving, even if the animals are CGI-created.

Still, you can't avoid the feeling that Lassie and Rin Tin Tin are rolling over in their graves.

Production companies: 20th Century Studios, TSG Entertainment, 3 Arts Entertainment
Distributor: 20th Century Studios
Cast: Harrison Ford, Omar Sy, Dan Stevens, Karen Gillan, Bradley Whitford, Cara Gee, Michael Horse, Jean Louisa Kelly, Colin Woodell, Adam Fergus, Abraham Benrubi, Terry Notary
Director: Chris Sanders
Screenwriter: Michael Green
Producers: Erwin Stoff, James Mangold
Executive producers: Diana Pokorny, Ryan Stafford, Michael Green
Director of photography: Janusz Kaminski
Production designer: Stefan Dechant
Editors: William Hoy, David Heinz
Composer: John Powell
Costume designer: Kate Hawley
Casting: Denise Chamian

Rated PG, 100 minutes