If you read the headline, you’ll already know that I’m not a fan of The Call of the Wild, a film adaption of the classic Jack London novel. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t like it. There are some things, however, that you’ll want to know before you see this movie, either in the theaters or at home.
It’s not a real dog.
The protagonist of the story is a Saint Bernard-Scotch Collie mix named Buck. In the movie, he’s lovable, naive, empathetic, proud, and eventually, a hero. It’s tough to convey all of those characteristics when you take the dog off of the page and out of the imagination of readers.
Old Disney movies, like Homeward Bound, relied heavily on narration to bring the animals’ emotions and actions to the arc of the story. In this case, it’s CGI that creates Buck. He’s a fully animated dog and that’s good and bad.
Even if you weren’t a fan of the live-action remake of The Lion King, you have to admire the technical achievements in animation used in the film. Where that fell short was watching realistic animals talk. That’s not the case in The Call of the Wild because Buck is NOT a talking dog.
So what’s wrong with CGI? In theory, nothing. It’s a much more humane way to include animals into our entertainment. And as you watch this story, you’ll see that it would have been far too difficult to film many of the scenes with a real dog. And yet, a dog is the heart of the story and you can’t replicate that with pixels.
The CGI is very off-putting at first, at least for any true dog lover. But after about 30 minutes, you become more accepting of Buck as a character. During production, they actually hired a Cirque du Soleil performer, Terry Notary, to “play” Buck. He studied movements of dogs and essentially became the onset version of Buck, which makes the human-dog interactions work quite nicely.
But there are other issues.
This movie has an identity problem.
Is this a kids’ movie full of silly dog antics? Sometimes. Is it a drama full of action and peril? Sometimes.
The opening sequence where we see Buck bouncing around as a spoiled troublesome family pet in northern California would make an unknowing moviegoer think they were in for the newest Scooby Doo movie. Soon after, Buck learns “the way of the club” and is subjected to harsh cruelties by man.
The movie seems to want to appeal to families and kids but still stay true to the story. And the story is not necessarily for kids. It’s a bit of a coming of age story but it’s full of treachery and violence.
It’s also told in very distinct segments. Buck in California. Buck transported to the Yukon. Buck as a mail dog. Buck as a private sled dog. Buck as a companion. Normally, that’s okay. That’s how stories progress. But this story felt very disjointed without an emotional connection from one segment to the next.
The characters are oddly placed.
The cast list for the film is impressive with Harrison Ford appearing on every movie poster and trailer. And yet, his character, John Thornton, doesn’t even become a significant character until halfway through the movie.
Also in the film are Bradley Whitford, Dan Stevens, and Karen Gillan all in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them roles. I can only imagine that much of their scenes ended up on the cutting room floor since the run time was only 1 hour 40 minutes.
But there were stand-outs in the film. Actors Cara Gee and Omar Sy filled the role of French mail dispatchers, François and Perrault. Their characters were full of complex emotions that oversaw a major period of growth for Buck. And then… they were gone.
The scenery was breathtaking… or was it?
Whether it’s in the dead of winter or emerging Spring, the Yukon is absolutely beautiful. Most of the scenes were actually shot in northern California with a few recreations of building and snow. But the backgrounds, much like big Hollywood productions back in the day, were all created – just digitally, instead of with a canvas.
Again, CGI is often used for practical purposes and most movies are a blend of reality and CGI. In this movie, because it was a combination of live action and completely animated characters, it all felt a little too unreal even though the reality of the story is supposed to be what grounds it.
Should you stay or should you go?
The Call of the Wild is an interesting movie. I found the story a bit harsh but I’ve never read the Jack London story myself. Turns out the movie stays mostly true to the book (save for the change in the antagonist from local murdering Native Americans to a greedy midwestern American). And if this is the way we bring classics to a new generation, I’m all for it.
But if you’re looking for a cinematic masterpiece, you won’t find it here. It doesn’t quite make the mark for me. I also found it to be a little violent for younger children. However, Harrison Ford doesn’t disappoint and is worth your time for his on-screen role. Whether your time is spent in the theater or waiting until the movie streams is entirely up to you.
Video Review of The Call of the Wild
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