Buck (played by a computer-generated canine) is a massive Saint Bernard whose spoiled existence as a household pet is cut short when he’s snatched and turned into a Yukon sled dog. He goes through a revolving door of owners, though the one who is especially taken with him is a sad prospector (played by Harrison Ford) in dire need of a companion; the two brave the elements together and journey deep into uncharted lands in search of fortune.
This robust, if very-loose, adaptation of Jack London’s 1903 novel has enough exciting set pieces to overcome how London’s harrowing story has been made into a mainstream popcorn movie. Considering how most of this movie is a special effects showcase, in which the four-legged protagonist is a CGI creation, The Call of the Wild is something of a lavish experimental film. We may look back on it as a milestone in 2020 visual effects technology. Thankfully, Buck the Dog (and his canine co-stars) is far more persuasive than he appeared in the iffy trailers. Many individual shots are stunning in their realism, although the illusion is far from seamless. I was always aware of the special effects but still grew attached to Buck as a character.
Ford gives an engaging, fully committed performance, with the warmth in his eyes creating a window into a man who is suffering from aching personal losses. It’s worth nothing that Ford narrates, as this continues to be a controversial aspect to the otherwise celebrated Blade Runner. Here, Ford’s growly voice is ideally suited to the imagery, even when his vocal duties seem added to over-explain the plot.
Playing Buck’s first round of human owners and trainers are Omar Sy and Cara Gee, both of whom are both very good. The perpetually one-note Dan Stevens co-stars in a ridiculous turn; his villainous character performance does nothing for the movie. The brisk running time also suggests this was once a longer movie that was shortened for multiplex appeal – surely Karen Gillan didn’t sign on for a role that has two minutes, tops, of screen time. The seldom seen Jean Louisa Kelly (best known for playing the rebellious teen daughter in Uncle Buck) pops up in the early stretch, as does Bradley Whitford in a nice cameo.
To think what the Coen brothers could have done with this material. Or rather, what they already did: The sublime, Tom Waits-led portion of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is superior to this movie. So is the surprisingly gritty, better-than-anyone-remembers, 1991, Ethan Hawke-starring take on London’s White Fang (though even that film took considerable liberties with its source material).
London is hard to pull off in movies, as his survivalist tales of the wilderness never flinched from cruel, brutal violence and the harshest aspects of human behavior. Having re-read the novel recently, I was taken aback by how tough it is and wonder if an entirely faithful adaptation will ever be possible. This version has a few intense moments and even suggests animal abuse a few times, but makes the decision to keep this family-friendly most of the way (grade-school kids shouldn’t have a problem enjoying it).
The Call of the Wild isn’t strong enough to enter the genre of the greatest of Canine Cinema, simply for the reason that Buck and his co-stars consist of pixels. By comparison, the syrupy but surprisingly riveting Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey from 1993 has this beat for using real animals – witnessing how a filmmaker can manipulate a performance from an animal will always be more impressive than anything this or Life of Pi can achieve. Yet, the idea is also that fake animals are a means of protecting the real ones from the potential harm and stress of working on a movie set. I enjoyed this softer but hearty take on London and will see it again, but Buck is no Benji.
Rated PG/100 Min.