Guest review: Call of the Wild (***)

By Bob Bennett

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Summary: An enjoyable film that skips the intensity of the original Jack London tale for an endearing “man loves dog” theme with surprisingly good special effects. Haters are gonna hate but this movie punches above its weight and makes you ponder what “civilized” really means.

** Possible light spoilers ahead if you’ve never read the source novel**

I am an unlikely admirer of Chris Sanders’ new family-friendly fantasy adventure Call of the Wild. I have never liked the perennially grumpy Harrison Ford, was convinced that using a CGI dog would be a travesty and was primed for disappointment as an amateur Klondike gold rush historian (I lead tours in Seattle on the gold rush).  And so, it was a surprise when I was genuinely touched by this movie that somehow punched above its weight.

The movie is the tenth film adaptation of Jack London’s original novel, The Call of the Wild, which was an instant success when released in 1903.  The book, authored by one of the first hardy souls to travel over the Chilkoot Pass when gold was discovered near Dawson City in 1896, was unsparing in its depiction of the brutality of nature.

Essentially the book is about how easily the thin veneer of society can be stripped away to reveal a harsh world where man and dog fight to survive through tooth and claw.  Frankly, in 2020 the book is a tough read; think angry Darwinism focused on inherent violence.

This version (adapted from London’s novel by Michael Green) is very Disney-esque, meaning that the movie is suitable for kids but still has enough going on for adults to be entertained.  Violent parts of the book are softened, non-PC portions are left behind (there are many) and new story elements have been added to heighten appeal.

Like the book, the movie presents human feelings through the experiences of a dog without going all in for anthropomorphism (the animals do not talk for example).  The book was always a work of fiction and the movie borders on fantasy.

Buck, a large city dog who is kidnapped and sold into the violent sled dog trade, is the main character.  As a stylized CGI dog, Buck has a commanding personality with just enough visual fidelity to let you regard him as real and with few distracting details.  Buck’s leaps and bounds are incredibly life-like due to use of motion capture sequences of a real dog and his facial expressions are very realistic – and I say that as someone who owns two large canines.

The other dogs in the movie and the wolves are well portrayed – such is the control that CGI gives the director.  One has to wonder if this type of lush storytelling will color our common perception of nature, since there is less and less “real nature.”  As another plus, the filming had a very low footprint on the real environment.  Still, if you can’t get over the CGI, you will not like the movie (in case you were wondering, all the human characters are portrayed by real actors).

The protagonist is a grizzled and despondent prospector, John Thornton, who is played by the well cast Harrison Ford.  John rescues Buck from a cruel and clueless owner (a city slicker of course) and bonds with him.  Ford struggles with old age, regrets and alcoholism – great family fare right?

There are three phases in the narrative.  The first covers Buck’s kidnapping from his plush city life and his baptism into the cruel world of men the dogs they enslave in pursuit of money.  The second features Buck development as a leader of his own pack of dogs.  The final chapter is Buck and John’s Homeric journey into the wilderness which is essentially a quest for deliverance from the evils of man.

The movie was shot partially on green screen, partially on location in California and features gorgeous background plates shot in the Yukon.  Somehow it mostly all works except for a bizarre scene where a pheasant is flushed (a few thousand miles North of their real habitat).

A high point is an incredible dog team action scene with Buck having earned his place as lead dog.  Buck takes his humans for the ride of their life and saves them from a huge avalanche (which was not in the book).

The movie is ultimately a lead up to Buck gradually integrating with a pack of wolves (who are incredibly lifelike).  The conflicting pull that Buck feels for John and the call of the wild by his new pack is the central theme of the story and is beautifully rendered on screen.

“Call of the WIld” is available for home viewing on pay-per-view (Disney)

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