Anyone who knows me knows that I get perpetually weepy when it comes to stories about animals, regardless of whether or not they are conveyed in person, in the written format, or cinematic format. Look. Animals are just better than people and, any time I see an animal go through a hard time, my heart does backflips and summersaults with it as my empathy gauges dial up to eleven. That’s why when I found out 20th Century Studios was bringing Jack London’s THE CALL OF THE WILD to the big screen for modern audiences, I could feel my stomach drop. I remembered the original novel and knew how much it broke me the first time I read it. So, as I walked into the movie theater, I had done all of these mental preparations to prepare myself for what I knew would happen in the story. Needless to say, as the credits rolled in the theater, I was pleasantly surprised and content to see the familiar tale made more palatable for a younger audience.
THE CALL OF THE WILD follows the story of Buck, a big-hearted dog that is living his best life in civilization before the rug gets pulled up from underneath him. You see, the film takes place during the Canadian Gold Rush of the 1890s which, as the film explains, has prompted many to seek out big dogs to help them navigate the snowy terrain. This leads to many dogs being kidnapped from their homes, which is the case with Buck one fateful night. Not used to the cruelty and greed of man, he tries to make sense of the world around him and the pain that has been inflicted on him as he is transported to the exotic wilds of the Canadian Yukon. There he is acquired by a mail delivery dog sled team led by Perrault (Omar Sy) and his partner Françoise (Cara Gee), who teach him the concept of teamwork as well as what life is like in the wilds of the Yukon. A series of events occur that prove Buck’s worth as a leader of the sled team, but also his worth as an asset to his owners. However, as is the case in life, Buck’s fortune changes when the mail delivery team is forced to cease due to technological changes via the telegraph.
Enter Harrison Ford’s John Thornton. Thornton has secluded himself away from society after the death of his son, which has left a traumatic mark on the man’s psyche. Through a series of events, he has a couple of run-ins with Buck before saving Buck’s life due to the blind ignorance and heavily reinforced greed of his new owner Hal (Dan Stevens). After knowing months of hard work, but also caring for the man so heavily in pain, Buck acclimates to John. Once the snow and ice thaw, John and Buck go off on an adventure that will remind them both of what truly matters in life. And, in the end, teach Buck where his true place is in this world.
As was the case with the source material, THE CALL OF THE WILD takes everyone through an emotional rollercoaster as we follow Buck through his journey of self-discovery amidst a turbulent time in history. While what happens to Buck is less graphic than what I recall from the original novel, it can still be a little hard to watch for a child. So, parents, I do advise you check up on the source material and determine whether or not your child might be ready for this film. With that being said, part of why the film works has a lot to do with the personality and charm the team has injected into Buck. While the personality and antics of Buck are pretty over-the-top, it helps create a likeability that allows the viewer to emotionally invest in the CGI-character. And, without the team having created such a standout personality as well as create a plausible emotional depth to the dog’s reactions, I don’t think the film could have survived. The likeability of Buck is a huge factor in why this film is able to work the way it does. I also have to give a massive shoutout to Terry Notary, who served as a stand-in for the CGI creation of Buck and probably had to do some of the most ridiculous, physical shenanigans represented onscreen.
Another much-deserved shoutout needs to go to Harrison Ford, who acts the heck out of his role as Jack Thornton. While the story is very much about Buck, Ford’s performance helps remind us that a good chunk of this journey centers around Thornton and his reconciling with his trauma surrounding his son’s death. Easily a role that could have been made overly dramatic, Ford keeps the character rooted in reality with his subtle performance. With Notary there as the stand-in, Ford’s interactions with Buck are made all the more realistic as he has someone to really react and play off of. If the idea of CGI-rendered animals is something that is keeping you away from this movie, I recommend you go just to see Harrison Ford as Jack Thornton. By the time his arc is complete, your heart will feel heavy as a result. And, to me anyway, that’s a sign of a performance done well.
The one thing of note that I have to mention is the CGI work done on the animals in this film. In general, there’s a lot of CGI work in this film. Director Chris Sanders does great work on capturing the sweeping landscapes of the Canadian Yukon and its various seasons. You can’t help but feel your heart catch in its chest during a heart-pounding avalanche sequence, which could have only really been done through the work of CGI. But, with regards to the animals, it’s still very much an uncanny valley type of feel. Granted, over the past few years, the work done on capturing and rendering animals has improved drastically to the point where many have themselves remarking on the realism of the animals (I’m looking at you Disney’s The Lion King). However, throughout the course of THE CALL OF THE WILD, there is just enough work done to remind us that these aren’t real animals but, for some people, the fact that they don’t come across like real animals might be a major deterrent. For me, I think the fact that they aren’t 100% on point helps to make the film’s overall plot and everything that happens to Buck less hurtful for my heart to take.
THE CALL OF THE WILD is full of warmth, laughter, heartbreak, and uncannily rendered animals. While Harrison Ford’s name is front and center, the personality and gumption they’ve injected into Buck steals the show. Seriously, that dog was made to snatch people’s hearts. However, Ford does knock it out of the park with his performance. While some people might be turned off by the work done on the animals in the film and might possibly be thrown off by the more metaphysical representation of the “wild” side of Buck, I don’t think it’s enough to detract from the film as a whole. And, in all honesty, the film serves as a great introduction for children to the original Jack London book.
The film is rated PG and opens in theaters on February 21, 2020.