At this point, any critic whose main complaint about this latest adaptation of Jack London’s novel The Call of the Wild revolves around the use of a computer-generated dog rather than one that couldn’t possibly be trained to do the things required of it in this movie, should probably pay a visit to the ASPCA’s website and figure out why the filmmakers really didn’t have a choice. Let me just get this out of the way first: the rendering of Buck in this film is actually pretty solid, with a few exceptions in scenes requiring a great deal of action. Dogs, especially ones as big as Buck is meant to be, simply don’t run the way he does in some scenes, and this is a film in which running is a big component, since Buck is a sled dog for a great deal of the first half of the film and tends to run around with a very active wolf community in the second half.
It should also be noted that, unlike films with photorealistic rendering of animals (like last year’s The Lion King), The Call of the Wild used movement expert Terry Notary (who did movement choreography and some motion capture work in the Planet of the Apes movies, The Hobbit films, Kong: Skull Island, and The Square, among many others) as a stand in for Buck in most scenes in which he interacts with humans. So if it looks like humans and Buck are physically connecting, that’s because they are. And that bond is also highly emotional and particularly effective when Buck interacts with his final “master,” John Thornton (Harrison Ford), a widower who wants nothing more than to be left alone in his grief in a cabin in the Alaskan Yukon.
But before Buck reaches Alaska, he has many lives to live. When we meet him, he’s the pet of a California judge (Bradley Whitford) in the 1890s Gold Rush era. Because of the dog’s size and appetite, he’s a bit of a handful as an indoor pet, and as a result, he is put outside quite frequently, leaving him vulnerable to dognappers who are looking for larger dogs to sell as snow dogs for those heading to Alaska looking for gold. Buck manages to escape his first captors and ends up as part of a dog sled team anyway, delivering mail throughout the wilderness and working under the humane care of postal carriers, played by Omar Sy and Cara Gee.
When the postal route is shut down, he is purchased by a nasty prospector (Dan Stevens) who thinks that the only way to get his dogs to function properly is to whip them and work them to death, saved in the nick of time by Ford’s Thornton, who crosses paths with Buck occasionally throughout his own journey. Eventually, Thornton takes over caring for Buck and the two make the trip to the Yukon side by side, rather than Buck pulling a sled.
As the title of the novel/film indicates, the final leg of Buck’s story concerns his time in the Yukon where he falls in with a pack of wolves that are cautious at first but eventually befriended, forcing Buck to choose between life with humans or life with his kind. To those who have read The Call of the Wild, you’ll probably realize early on that the movie takes a few liberties with London’s work, but nothing so egregious that it feels out of place in this story. As much as I enjoy the presence of Dan Stevens in just about anything, the fact that screenwriter Michael Green and director Chris Sanders (The Croods, Lilo & Stitch, How to Train Your Dragon) felt the need to create a cookie-cutter villain out of his characters seems pointless, since Buck has plenty of other obstacles (human and otherwise) to deal with already.
The film is at its best when it sticks with Thornton and Buck, and forgets the world outside of their little patch of land. They both have a great deal to overcome as it is, including Thornton’s drinking, which is fueled by his perpetual grief. Ford is genuinely solid in this role and seems far more invested in this fake dog than anyone he came into contact with in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Notary’s performance capture work as Buck makes a tremendous difference, and certainly gives Ford something to react to. As I said, when Buck and his other animals friends get involved in anything that includes action, the effects don’t quite hold up. But in smaller-scale moments, you could have told me Buck was a real dog, and I would have probably believed you.
The Call of the Wild has a few slow patches and a few moments where the humor doesn’t quite land, but alongside the slew of dog adventure movies of late, there’s a reason people keep dipping back into this particular well. It’s a terrific story that actually doesn’t presume that a dog’s best place is next to a human. It’s a tale of freedom, expression and dignity, and this telling of London’s book is a worthy effort.
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