The Call of the Wild movie review: a very good boi (mostly)

The Call of the Wild green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

An old-fashioned kiddie adventure, sweetly earnest, equal parts scary, funny, exciting, sad, and happy, with only a bit of uncanny valley in its CGI doggo star. Definitely had something in my eye.
I’m “biast” (pro): love a good dog movie…
I’m “biast” (con): …but those are rare
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

Harrison Ford has gone full Grizzly Adams — honestly, he was already halfway there in the new Star Wars — and Buck the canine hero is fully CGI, 100-percent digital, not a scrap of real fur or dog farts about him. There is so much about this new umpteenth film version of Jack London’s classic novel The Call of the Wild that is ready-made for meme-iriffic snarking.

Go ahead and get it out of yer system, because dang if it ain’t actually some old-fashioned kiddie-pitched action-adventure, sweetly earnest, equal parts scary and funny and exciting and sad and happy. It reminded me of the live-action Disney animal movies of the 1960s and 70s, the ones I grew up with… the ones that helped me fall in love with movies. And if the kids at the family screening I attended are anything to go by — they loved it; the six-year-old friend I went with was riveted, frequently leaning toward the screen at the intense bits — this new generation isn’t too jaded or too content-to-just-stream-stuff-on-their-tablets to enjoy a cozy, sentimental story blazing on a big screen. Even one without catchy tunes.

The Call of the Wild
Nice doggo’s untamed spirit…

I definitely had something in my eye several times while watching this. I’m such a soft touch. Stupid sappy animal flick…

(This is a Disney movie, but only technically. This is a Fox production that was swept up in the purchase when The Mouse bought the studio — just the movie stuff, not the TV stuff — and its assets last year. In fact, Call is the first film to be released under the new stripped-of-the-toxic-Fox-brand name 20th Century Studios. You will notice the altered logo in the opening fanfare.)

Pitched for grade-schoolers this may be, but Call has not been dumbed down, nor are the harsher aspects of the tale elided over. And thank goodness for that. The roller coaster of doggy emotions that Buck — a Saint Bernard–Scotch shepherd–mix pooch; apparently this is the first big-screen adaptation to get Buck’s canine heritage right — rides as he goes from pampered, rambunctious family pet in 1890s California to dognap victim to sled dog in the Yukon and beyond includes encounters with humans who run the full gamut from kind to cruel. More than one moment of mostly off-screen, mostly implied, yet still chilling violence toward Buck prompted screams of terror from a few of the littlest ones at my screening; Call might be a tad too much for the youngest kids. (Dan Stevens [The Man Who Invented Christmas, Beauty and the Beast] is now officially the movie villain of nightmares for a generation of children. Sorry, Dan. But you knew what you were getting into.)

Isn’t a bit of anthropomorphizing in keeping with the ethos of Jack London’s novel?

None of the kids seemed to have any problem understanding that the stately black wolf whom Buck keeps encountering on his journeys in the snowy wilderness is, in fact, the spirit of Buck’s own animal nature, a guide for him as he rediscovers his untamed side. Some of the grownups I spoke to after the movie agreed with me that the ever-so-slightly cartoonish aspects to the all-CGI animals, including the other dogs on the mush team Buck joins, detract from fully buying into them as real animals. If there is a doggo uncanny valley here, it’s in the very human, though also only very occasional and somewhat muted, rolling of eyes and other facial expressions that dogs don’t actually make. None of this anthropomorphizing is anywhere near like the crime it can be in some for-kids animal movies; the dogs don’t talk here, hallelujah. And it could be considered in keeping with the ethos of Jack London’s novel; I haven’t read it, but isn’t a part of the appeal of the so-call animal fiction of that era a certain attributing to creatures human motives, desires, and feelings? I bet London would approve.

The Call of the Wild
Buck’s hard stare…

Anyway, this marks an auspicious live-action debut of director Chris Sanders — whose previous work has been in animation with The Croods, How to Train Your Dragon, and Lilo & Stitch — even if this movie is still half-animated. Digital dogs, who need not be trained, or, more darkly, forced to turn in performances that might be dangerous or even merely undoglike — are a far better, far more involving use of this technology than, say, last summer’s misbegotten “live-action” (ie: fully animated but photorealistically so) Lion King was.

There are humans here! Ford’s (The Secret Life of Pets 2, Blade Runner 2049) John Thornton is far from the only primate person to feature in Buck’s adventures (even if the marketing suggests otherwise), and he has been given a somewhat different — and more poignant — backstory than the character seems to have in the book (if the Wikipedia synopsis is detailed enough to make such a determination). In any case, apart from a few brief encounters with Buck early on and the gentle narration Ford’s human supplies for our benefit, Thornton is not a significant friend for Buck until the dog’s finale act with humanity. (DoesTheDogDie.com? No. Not a spoiler; the book is a century old, fer pete’s sake.) Ford is his usual gruff yet sneakily pleasant curmudgeon, and displays a wonderful gameness in interacting with a costar who wasn’t there. (Except in the form of — *gulp* — a human on all fours in motion-capture gear. Seriously, do not Google any making-of stuff. You won’t be able to unsee it.)

The Call of the Wild
Soon we’ll need to CGI wild landscapes, too…

Much as I love Ford, I would have been equally happy to see a full movie in which Buck continually exasperates his master (Bradley Whitford: Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Destroyer) in his well-off, comfortable California home. Or one in which Buck is just enjoying his work with the Canadian post dispatchers (Omar Sy [Burnt, Jurassic World] and Cara Gee) on whose sled team he ends up, and works his way up the pupper chain of command. (The casting of a French black man and a First Nations woman delivering mail in late-19th-century Canada is how you do effortless diversity onscreen. It’s not even anachronistic!)

The Call of the Wild is a movie that, as noted above, it’s easy to dismiss and disparage. But now that I’ve seen it (and I wasn’t expecting much), I feel like it’s worth defending. For its empathetic soul. For its love of the natural world. Both of which need defending now more than ever today. We adults can snicker at the dogs rolling their eyes. If it hits the kids in the way it means to, and it looks to me like it will, that’s all good. Not every film needs to be Great Cinema. But this is the sort of movie that could help mold a new generation of cinema fans. That’s all good.

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