Review: “The Call of the Wild” (2020)

3.5 out of 5 stars.

You’d have to have a pretty hard heart not to be moved by “The Call of the Wild,” a new adaptation of the classic Jack London story directed by Chris Sanders—despite a very obvious issue.  The story of a dog’s journey from pampered house pet to his origins in the wilderness and the people he encounters along the way is a return to old-fashioned family entertainment in which almost everyone can find something to enjoy, even if the result isn’t as memorable as its source material.

The film opens in the 1890s and centers around Buck, a huge and good-hearted—if rambunctious—St. Bernard who lives a spoiled life in California as the pet of Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford).  One evening, Buck is stolen and brought to Alaska, where he is sold off as a sled dog to a pair of mail carriers.  Throughout the course of the film, Buck has a variety of masters, from Perrault and Francoise (Omar Sy and Cara Gee), who come to view Buck as more than just a dog, to Hal (Dan Stevens), Mercedes (Karen Gillan), and Charles (Colin Woodell), an arrogant and selfish group of Southerners who have come to Alaska to look for gold, but have no clue what they are doing and almost run the dogs to death.  Ultimately, Buck befriends outdoorsman John Thorton (Harrison Ford), but the more time he spends in the wilderness, the more he starts to feel the pull of his ancestors in the wild.

John Thorton (Harrison Ford) and Buck explore the Yukon

“The Call of the Wild” retains many elements and characters from London’s novel, although to say it is a faithful adaptation isn’t entirely correct.  John’s confrontation with Hal becomes the major conflict of the movie, and Stevens plays him in an over-the-top way that makes him more buffoonish than truly threatening.  Other scenes come off as perhaps a bit too tame (but this is a PG-rated movie targeted at families, so that’s understandable), while other memorable scenes are missing altogether, but most importantly, the film retains the novel’s primary themes of survival and civilization versus nature.  It has the original story’s spirit too; the human characters may have big roles in this film, but it remains Buck’s journey first and foremost, and most of the action is seen from his perspective.

When the main character of a live-action movie is an animal, there are many different ways to approach it.  In the past, we’ve seen films like “Homeward Bound” use real animals on screen, with human voiceovers conveying their thoughts.  With the ability to recreate increasingly realistic non-human characters with computer animation over the years, films like Jon Favreau’s 2019 version of “The Lion King” have been able to employ animated talking animals that look entirely real.  The animal characters in “The Call of the Wild,” primarily Buck, fall somewhere in between all this.  Buck is an entirely digital character, but unlike, say, the characters in “The Lion King,” it’s very obvious that Buck isn’t real.  There’s a cartoonishness to his features that allow him to emote in an almost human-like way.  There are scenes in this movie that involve Buck interacting with other dogs in which this works great.  It’s the sort of animation style that “The Lion King,” which is devoid of human characters to project their emotions onto the animals, could have benefited from.  But when you place Buck next to Harrison Ford, it’s jarring.  This is not a talking animal movie, and in fact, Ford provides a lot of narration throughout the film further explaining what is going on with Buck, so it often feels like this movie could have gotten away with using a real dog instead.

Buck in “The Call of the Wild”

Once you get past some initial discomfort with the appearance of the animation, however, the film’s other charms take over and it doesn’t become such a huge issue.  The stylized nature of the animals makes some violent scenes a bit easier to watch (again, this is a family movie), and some of Buck’s more exaggerated expressions make for some amusing and moving scenes.  The physical manifestation of a looming black wolf that appears to Buck throughout the film is an obvious but good way to demonstrate the call to the wild that Buck starts hearing.  By introducing John and Buck briefly at the start of the film, John’s defense of him later and the relationship they ultimately development is believable and meaningful.  Ford turns in a wonderful performance here as a man struggling to pick up the pieces after separating from his wife following the death of their son, and while their relationship really grows after John rescues Buck, in the end it’s he who ends up needing Buck more.

“The Call of the Wild” boasts rich landscapes, good action, light comedy and deeper, more introspective scenes as both the human and animal characters reflect on their place in the world.  There’s something appealing for every age, making this a family movie in every sense of the world.  It may not be the best or most faithful version of the story, but it’s hard not to be won over by the relationship between man and dog.  Manipulative?  Maybe.  But I say don’t judge this movie based on what it looks like and go see it with an open mind.

Runtime: 100 minutes. Rated PG.

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