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Every dog has its day – ‘The Call of the Wild’

February 26, 2020
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In a cinematic landscape littered with high-octane action movies driven by gritty dialogue, computer generated imagery and explosions, it’s rare to see a good old-fashioned adventure story, something family-friendly but not condescending.

Oddly enough, “The Call of the Wild” fills that void, even though it heavily relies on CGI in its own way. This adaptation of Jack London’s 1903 classic of the same name is directed by Chris Sanders from a screenplay adapted by Michael Green; unlike the numerous film adaptations that preceded it, this version relies on a computer-generated lead character. It’s a choice that, while not wholly effective, winds up working considerably better than you might expect.

There’s a bit of tonal inconsistency as far as the narrative goes, but for the most part, the filmmakers lean into the broad adventure vibe that is foundational to the book. That grand sense of nature’s power and possibility goes a long way toward compensating for any issues. Ultimately, this is a story that kids and parents alike will find palatable, if perhaps not the most exciting entertainment ever made.

In the late 19th century, a dog named Buck is living a happy life in Santa Clara, California. He is a fixture in the town, a spoiled goofball who has the run of the place thanks to the deference given to his owner, Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford, TV’s “Perfect Harmony”). Buck’s is a carefree existence … right up until he is stolen and sold and shipped up to the Yukon to become a working dog in service to one of the many prospectors seeking gold.

While Buck is initially introduced to the brutality of some men, he also crosses paths with a sad frontiersman by the name of John Thornton (Harrison Ford, “The Secret Life of Pets 2”). Thornton goes on his way, but the encounter proves to be a memorable one later on.

Buck’s luck takes a turn for the better when he is purchased by Perrault (Omar Sy, “The Wolf’s Call”) and Francoise (Cara Gee, TV’s “The Expanse”), a pair of Canadians who work the Yukon Trail mail run. Buck quickly acclimates to his new life, learning the tricks of survival in the wild thanks to his sled dog mates and a mysterious spirit wolf that appears to him, leading him in whatever direction he needs to go.

When the mail run is discontinued, however, Buck and the rest of the team is sold to a hot-headed dandy of a man named Hal (Dan Stevens, TV’s “Legion”), who is bringing his sister Mercedes (Karen Gillan, “Jumanji: The Next Level”) and her dopey husband Charles (Colin Woodell, TV’s “The Purge”) on a wild goose chase for some legendary gold haul.

It’s here where Buck and Thornton cross paths again, only this time, a confluence of circumstances leads to the two of them staying together, much to Hal’s chagrin (who displays said chagrin quite vividly).

Buck and Thornton become fast friends, with Buck’s good heart and courage helping to heal the damages of Thornton’s past. They head out on an adventure that leads them to an idyllic and isolated spot – a place with some unexpected benefits. Buck begins spending more and more time out in the wilderness, encountering and befriending some of his undomesticated counterparts.

Torn between loyalty to his friend and the pull of the world beyond, Buck must decide whether he will answer the call of the wild.

“The Call of the Wild” is far more successful than I expected going in. Having seen the trailers, I admit to having been somewhat concerned about the CGI nature of Buck – the uncanny valley aspect that inevitably creates a remove from the flesh-and-blood characters. While I’ll concede that it is an issue, I found it surprisingly easy to accept – Buck was such an earnest and endearing character that his being slightly off didn’t much bother me beyond the film’s opening minutes.

It’s also worth noting that the choice to go with CGI made many aspects of the storytelling considerably easier to put on film. The truth is that while real dogs would have enhanced the general verisimilitude to an extent, real dogs also would have been unable to perform the extreme feats of physicality – both dramatic and slapstick – produced by Buck and his CGI canine cohort. All in all, I’d say they made the right choice.

While Buck is the lead dog in every sense of the word, his human co-stars prove surprisingly up to the task. I fully expected the same disengaged Harrison Ford we’ve been seeing for the past few years, but he seemed to care a bit more than anticipated. Not a lot, mind you, but enough to make the character work; he’s no stranger to acting opposite dudes in weird outfits, be they hairy aliens or green spandex. He even serves as the film’s narrator to good effect. Sy and Gee are charming, as is Whitford. Gillan was clearly available for like two days and her scenes reflect that. And Stevens goes full a-hole from moment one; he’s almost comically hateable every single second he’s on screen.

This isn’t the first screen adaptation of “The Call of the Wild,” nor is it likely to be the last. But thanks to some spirited narrative choices, a handful of solid performances and a very good effects team, it’s probably the best we’ve seen.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 26 February 2020 08:00

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