The Call of the Wild (2020)
Unsurprisingly, this isn’t the first time that Jack London’s 1903 short novel The Call of the Wild has been adapted for the silver screen — this is the seventh iteration of the material to date, and that’s without films like the Ethan Hawke-starring White Fang (1991), which was hugely inspired by London’s writing. The most famous adaptation is the 1972 film, and before that, the 1935 version, released by 20th Century Fox. There was also an animated Snoopy/ Peanuts television special, titled What a Nightmare, Charlie Brown! (1978), as well as a silent movie all the way back in 1923. This time, however, under the newest arm of the Mouse House, the recently rebranded 20th Century Studios, London’s seminal story finds a more fitting home, this new film — which is probably the best translation of the source thus far — wholly capturing the spirit of a Walt Disney family-oriented matinee-style adventure.
The hero of our story is a large and powerful St. Bernard-Scotch Collie dog named Buck — a fully CGI character, played by accomplished mo-cap actor Terry Notary, who starred as Kong in 2017’s Skull Island. Set in the late 1800s, around the Klondike Gold Rush, the film trails Buck, who’s introduced as a domesticated dog living a comfortable life in a sprawling estate in California’s Santa Clara Valley. He’s the pampered pet of Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford in a fun little cameo) and his family; the walls of the human-made house, though, seem to be too small to hold him — we see Buck running amok inside the expansive manor, slamming into furniture and causing the floors to rumble as he rolls and romps about. Late one night, while forced to sleep out on the porch, Buck gets stolen from his sunny California home and uprooted to the icy Alaskan Yukon.
Transported by sea, Buck learns the ‘law of the club’ as he’s subjected to frequent beatings by his overseer. He’s confined to a crate and ill-treated for the entire journey — there are some frightening scenes of animal cruelty, so viewer discretion is advised for much younger patrons. When reaching his destination, Buck is sold to freight haulers and begins work as a sled dog, towing mail across the snow-covered district of north-western Canada. Totally out of his element and miles away from everything he knowns, Buck begins to realize that it’s a dog-eat-dog world, adapting to the sheer brutality of the wilderness as he hauls a ridiculously heavy sled through miles of unforgiving ice, braving avalanches and fatigue, and even facing off against fellow canine Spitz, the rapacious husky head of the sled pack. Thankfully, his masters, two outdoorsy French-Canadian dispatchers working for the government, Perrault (an excellent Omar Sy — um, can someone give this man more work), and Françoise (Cara Gee) are gentle and just. Eventually, Perrault becomes fond of Buck, who helps the mailman complete the round-trip of the treacherous Yukon Trail in record time, and teaches the dog that perseverance and determination are crucial to success and survival.
Sadly, Buck’s next owner isn’t so pleasant, as the pooch is purchased by cruel and inexperienced dog musher Hal (Dan Stevens), traveling with his privileged posse, who knows zilch about animals or how to work with ’em. Of course, he has deep pockets and craves the shiny yellow rock, working Buck and his kennel to exhaustion while trying to reach the promised land to become filthy rich. Fortunately, the mongrel, starved and neglected by his new master, is rescued by Harrison Ford’s hard-drinking loner John Thornton, whom big Buck has encountered several times before — at one point, the mangey mutt returns a battered harmonica to the grizzled old guy.
Estranged from his wife following a family tragedy and having retreated from civilization in general, the reclusive Thornton becomes attached to Buck, and together the man and beast embark on a voyage of their own, where Buck wrestles to find his true place in the world. Throughout it all, Buck is being guided by a primitive, glowing-eyed arctic wolf, this spirit animal steering him towards his primal destiny and reconnecting him with his ancestors.
Charmingly directed by Chris Sanders, How to Train Your Dragon (2010), who hails from the world of animation, this film is an impressive live-action debut. However, though classified as live-action, The Call of the Wild is more of a live-action animated hybrid, with many of the landscapes and the assortment of furry critters being digitally created — and quite wonderfully, too. Unlike Jon Favreau, who opted for pure realism in the animal designs for his less than stellar The Lion King (2019), Sanders goes slightly hyper-real with Buck, and it totally works. Sure, he can be a bit overly emotive compared to a real-life dog, and a tad too Scooby-Doo at times, but this is a card-carrying Disney film, and Buck feels like a classic Disney dog, harkening back to celebrated canines such as Tramp from Lady and the Tramp (1955) and Pongo from 101 Dalmatians (1961).
Adapted from London’s masterwork by Oscar-nominated Michael Green, Logan (2017), the script balances the action-adventure elements beautifully against the book’s heady ideas and messages; although, some of the novel’s grislier parts have been toned down or omitted to Disney-fy the whole thing. Equally thrilling as it is philosophical, The Call of the Wild gives viewers plenty to chew on. The film explores morality quite nicely as Buck learns the unwritten law of the wild (interestingly, his first owner is a judge — make of that what you will), while themes of man and the natural world — can Buck have a relationship with both? — loyalty, friendship, suffering, and resilience (to list a few) are sure to resonate strongly with older patrons. Furthermore, the backdrop of the Alaskan Gold Rush, which is in full swing when the movie opens, serves to highlight the inescapability of the quest into the unknown — we humans crave it as much as Buck does.
So, there’s some great stuff if you want to unpack it. But this isn’t an analytical essay, it’s a film review, and, as a film The Call of the Wild is excellent, Jack London’s ode to the wild brought to life in spectacular fashion for the modern audiences; it’s a sprawling big-budget buddy adventure about man and his best friend. The scenes of the southland dog sled team zigzagging in and over icy cliffs, dodging herds of digital deer, and racing through snowy expanses backdropped by the Northern Lights are, to say the least, breathtaking. Steven Spielberg’s go-to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, War Horse (2011), does an amazing job here, recreating these stunning expanses and jaw-dropping terrains via computer — honestly, you’d never know they’re pixels on a screen — while the score by composer John Powell, Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), truly soars, complimenting the visuals.
The legendary Harrison Ford joins the ranks of Clark Gable, the late Rutger Hauer, and great Charlton Heston — all of whom had a crack at playing experienced outdoorsman John Thornton — delivering one of his best turns in years as the forlorn drifter, adding weight to the proceedings; it’s a nuanced performance that mixes earnestness, tragedy, comedy and, warmth, and fits perfectly within the parameters of family entertainment. After some lazy work as of late, it’s nice to see the 77-year-old Hollywood icon actually give a darn about a project again. Ford’s interactions with his canine companion are a heap of fun, too — whether gazing up at the star-scattered sky, rafting down rough rapids, or performing a harmonica duet with his furry CGI co-star, Ford wholly sells the camaraderie with the digi-dog.
Dan Stevens, Beauty and the Beast (2017), is probably the weakest link in this otherwise robust cast, embodying callow, mustached gold hunter Hal. He’s the film’s chief bad guy and Stevens plays it a pinch too cartoony — the act borders on melodrama. For anyone unfamiliar with the text, Stevens’ entitled brute replaces the book’s antagonistic Native American Yeehats as their inclusion may have been considered too insensitive in today’s PC culture. Karen Gillan, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017), also pops up as well, but it’s a literal blink-and-you’ll-miss-her role.
Ultimately, everyone loves a good ol’ dog yarn, and The Call of the Wild is an uplifting doggie adventure filled with action, drama and heart, which also happens to star a revitalized Harrison Ford. In the growing subgenre that surveys the bond between man and mutt — think A Dog’s Journey (2019), A Dog’s Way Home (2019), and A Dog’s Purpose (2017) — The Call of the Wild finishes comfortably ahead of the pack.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by S-Littner