“The Call of the Wild”- Movie Review
Everyone has that one book they were forced to read in high school that they absolutely hated. For me, it was a toss-up between the Shakespeare play Julius Caesar, Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice and Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. All three bored me to tears, but London’s novel stands out in my memory as being the most insufferable story to sit through. I was just a freshman at the time, so maybe I was too absorbed in sappy YA novels and trashy reality tv shows to appreciate classic literature. Regardless, I remember more about my animosity toward the book than the actual plot. Thus I figured I’d let Chris Sanders and 20th Century Studios remind me what I was missing.
This latest adaptation of London’s tale stars Harrison Ford and a CGI dog. The dog in question is named Buck, a stocky St. Bernard/Scotch Collie mix who is kidnapped from his comfortably wealthy home and shipped to the harsh snow-capped mountains of the Yukon. Forced to serve as a sled dog during the Gold Rush, Buck gets his first taste of the harsh and unrelenting nature of the wild. His struggle for survival leads him to John Thornton (Ford), a lonely old drunkard living in solitude. The two embark on a harrowing adventure through the winding rivers, hills and valleys of the Canadian wilderness. As their bond grows stronger, so does Buck’s temptation to submit to his feral instincts.
The only aspect of London’s original novel that ever stayed with me was its brutal portrayal of abuse and survival. In the book, Buck was beaten, starved and conditioned to servitude by his captors, and had to learn how to fight to survive in his new environment. The book carries a lot of dark themes, so it’s interesting that a studio like 20th Century Studios- which, need I remind you, now falls under the Disney umbrella- chose to adapt it as a PG-rated adventure flick. You would think that doing so would downplay the central message of the book. And considering the light-hearted tone the filmmakers were going for, they definitely ran the risk of turning London’s story into a cartoon.
Thankfully that’s not what we get here, at least not entirely. The Call of the Wild has its heart and focus in the right place. It’s certainly a neutered rendition- the darker elements aren’t super prevalent, but they’re not ignored. The film doesn’t shy away from the hardships Buck experiences, it just portrays it in a subtle way. It’s light-heartedness paves the way for a few goofy moments for sure, though it’s not excessive enough to be distracting. Buck’s journey remains the focal point through and through, and whenever the plot teters on the edge of being too cartoonish, Harrison Ford sweeps into frame to save the day.
Ford feels genuinely human in this role. His performance comes naturally, almost like it’s not a performance at all. He carries the film whenever he’s on screen, keeping the narrative grounded and its emotional center thriving. The relationship between him and Buck is believably charming, which is kind of impressive considering the dog isn’t really there. Although Buck’s overall design is fantastic (my mom thought they used a real dog), I find it odd that the filmmakers didn’t just get a real, well-trained dog. On the one hand, I sort of understand why they did it. You don’t want to put real animals in dangerous situations, and by having them be completely CGI’d gives you greater control over their performances. But they could’ve just used real dogs for most of the scenes and have CGI versions of them for the dangerous scenes. As is, the fully CGI animals may take some getting used to, though they aren’t the worst part of the film. That title goes to Dan Stevens, whose over-the-top presence as a random antagonist is totally unnecessary.
At the end of the day, I can’t be the one to say whether or not The Call of the Wild is a good adaptation of Jack London’s novel. I’ll leave that for the purists to decide. What I will say is that the film is better than I expected it to be. The filmmakers approached the project with a mature eye, and while some parts are a little silly, the narrative overall succeeds in telling Buck’s story. It’s a well-made movie with stunning cinematography and a great lead performance by Harrison Ford. Whether you’re familiar with the source material or not, it’s a decent adventure for anyone who’s willing.