THE CALL OF THE WILD – Review
The new adaptation of Jack London’s 1903 adventure THE CALL OF THE WILD is a thrilling family-friendly adventure well worth seeing. The harsher aspects of London’s book have been softened, but while the new film does feel juvenile, it’s not dumbed-down, more a Classics Illustrated comic brought to eye-popping life with glorious 21st century technology. Having lived most of his life in 1890’s California with Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford) and his family, Buck (half Scotch Shepard, half St. Bernard and 100% CGI) is a spoiled and beloved pet. But he also has a price on his head for those looking to provide large dogs to prospectors headed to the Yukon trail looking to strike it rich mining for gold. One night one of the judge’s employees dognaps Buck and takes him up North where he initially ends up pulling with a sled team for Canadian mail carriers. Perrault (Omar Sy) and Francoise (Cara Gee) who take special care of him as he initially struggles with the tough conditions. Buck soon out-alphas his arch-rival Spitz and becomes lead dog. When the dog sledding postal service is abruptly ended, Buck is sold to rich and arrogant gold-hungry Hal (Dan Stevens in full moustache-twirling mode) who along with his sister Mercedes (Karen Gillan – underused) and her husband Charles (Colin Woodell) are comically over their heads in terms of surviving in the Northern wilderness. Eventually Buck is rescued from this cruel trio by John Thornton (Harrison Ford) and the second half of the film focuses on bonding and adventures with Thornton and Buck.
The CGI in THE CALL OF THE WILD is state-of-the-art but still takes some getting used to as Buck’s face (especially his eyes) is anthropomorphized for slightly cartoonish, human-like expressions. This makes him quite the magnificent hero, achieving super-canine physical abilities and thoughts (to keep Thornton sober, he buries his whiskey bottle in the snow). The CGI is not any worse than JUNGLE BOOK, but we know dogs and the smartest dog is still a dumb animal and Buck never quite seems like a real hound, especially one facing the harsh realities of being poached and adjusting to these grim conditions. Younger audiences may not notice or mind and using a real dog would have had its limitations, but it still may be too high a hurdle for some adult viewers. Whatever your take, motion-capture actor Terry Notary deserves a shout-out for his work “playing” Buck.
Despite some misleading marketing, Harrison Ford narrates but his John Thornton takes center only in the film’s second half. Ford is his usual gruff yet pleasant growler and displays a natural ease in interacting with a costar that wasn’t really there. Sporting shabby wool sweaters and a long grey beard that suits him admirably, this is 77-year old Ford’s most endearing role in years (and he even appears shirtless!).
The cinematography by Oscar-winner Janusz Kaminski is a spectacular take on these lush, magnificent vistas in a part of the world not often shown in movies. It makes you want to hop on a plane and fly to the Yukon though keep in mind the actors on-screen likely spent most of the shoot in front of a green screen. THE CALL OF THE WILD is a beautiful film with a lot to look at. The pacing is quick (it’s a brisk 100 minutes) and like any good adventure, the interaction with the animals, unkind humans and the elements may get pretty scary for the very young. THE CALL OF THE WILD is fine old-fashioned family entertainment and highly recommended.
3 1/2 out of 4 Stars