“Canine actor seeking work. Will chase cats, bark at mailmen and sniff butts. Preferred payment is bones, but kibble will suffice.”
Such is the personal ad that I imagine canine actors are sending to their local newspapers in the wake of the release of the latest theatrical adaptation of Jack London’s seminal man-and-his-dog story “The Call of the Wild.” The big twist this time around? There is, in fact, no dog.
Neither are there real bears, caribou or wolves, and their absence is noticeable at first. It seems strange that a film about the irresistible pull of nature has completely replaced nature with digital effects.
But if the animals are distractingly state-of the-art, the story is delightfully old-fashioned- a thrilling adventure tale that is beautifully filmed, charmingly acted and emotionally resonant. They may not make them like they used to, as the older folks say, but “Call of the Wild” comes pretty close.
The story, written by Michael Green of “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Logan”, follows London’s story largely beat-for-beat with the pruning of a few superfluous characters and a change in one key character’s demise. (Being brutally murdered by Native Americans is a little intense for this story’s young audience and a bit politically incorrect, to boot.)
But Buck is still a Saint Bernard living in the lap of luxury in the home of a California judge. He is still sold as a sled dog to the Yukon, where he helps deliver the mail to isolated Alaska towns. He still has a run-in with a cruel and foolish wannabe prospector and a kind man named John Thornton. And he still chooses life with a wolf pack over the human world.
Director Chris Sanders -the man behind “Lilo and Stitch,” “How to Train Your Dragon,” and my favorite corporate-culture-bashing picture book– has been playing with the man-and-his-dog formula for most of his career, and he suits this material well.
Sanders’ animation background may explain the decision to go digital. If Buck is not the most realistic-looking dog – he is very clearly a CGI creation and exists in the uncanny valley at times- he is also able to convey more emotion than Lassie and Rin Tin Tin combined, while doing things possible only in the realm of animation.
Real dogs can’t play the harmonica or stage an intervention for an alcoholic owner or do half of the other delightful things that the CGI Buck does in this film. And although I hope evolution will eventually create this perfect canine species, the wonders of animation will have to suffice for now.
It is also worth mentioning that the entire Alaskan countryside was created digitally, which was an absolute shock to me. The film is constantly gorgeous to look at, and Sanders is blessed with the services of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski who, after eighteen films with Steven Spielberg, knows a thing or two about setting up a striking shot – digital or otherwise.
There are numerous stunning set pieces – from the mail sled outrunning an avalanche to a bumpy canoe trip through river rapids- that are a testament to the craft of both Kaminski and Sanders.
That craftsmanship extends through the whole production. Composer John Powell, who received an Academy Award nomination for his “How to Train Your Dragon” score for Sanders, has composed another rollicking score – one that is as emotional as Buck’s digital face.
77-year-old Harrison Ford, as Thornton, proves that he still has the charisma and gravitas to lead a big-budget spectacular. As charming as Buck is, this film wouldn’t work without a solid human anchor. It’s hard to imagine this story being half as satisfying without Ford.
Other human characters come and go quickly, and talented folks like Bradley Whitford and Karen Gillan aren’t on screen long enough to make any sort of impression. Poor Dan Stevens, as the abusive wannabe prospector, is downright manic as the most ridiculous film villain I’ve seen in some time.
The story lags a bit in the human-free sections toward the end, and the absence of real dogs is never entirely justified.
But “The Call of the Wild” (rated PG for some violence, peril, thematic elements and mild language) still manages to be a rollicking introduction to classic fiction for children- exciting, funny and sweet. It never talks down to children and never assumes that a good story well told needs to be embellished upon to get their attention.
Kids will notice this. The young girl behind me, who babbled incessantly through the trailers and the first few minutes or so of the film, became eerily quiet as the story went along – interrupting the silence only once for a quietly whispered “I love this.”
I can’t say I blame her.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.