The Call of the Wild

Oversized St. Bernard mix Buck is well known for his mischief in the California town of his indulgent owner Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford, "Get Out"). But it is the 1890s and as strong dogs are at a premium to be used on sled teams during the Canadian Yukon’s gold rush, Buck is stolen and transported north. His circumstances rise and fall through a succession of masters cruel and kind until, fully matured, he responds to “The Call of the Wild.”

Laura's Review: C+

It is telling that an animation director, Chris Sanders ("Lilo & Stitch," "The Croods"), was attached to this property as its star, Buck, rarely fools the eye into believing that one is watching a real dog. Despite using motion capture performance (by Cirque du Soleil performer Terry Notary) and CGI modeled on Buckley, a St. Bernard/Shepherd mix, it is difficult to get past the artificiality of the movie’s star whose facial expressions are often anthropomorphized as well. Purists will also be displeased with screenwriter Michael Green ("Blade Runner 2049") sanitization of the Jack London novel which has been purged of animal deaths and murderous Native American Indians if not animal cruelty. If you can accept these two conditions, however, “The Call of the Wild” is still a rousing American adventure tale with appealing human performances from Harrison Ford as John Thornton and “The Intouchables’” Omar Sy as dog-sledding mail courier Perrault.

The film begins with comic exaggeration as Buck has the effect of an earthquake upon the Miller household, rattling dishes and rolling up rugs as he gallops around the house. But when he’s left out on the porch overnight after destroying an outdoor banquet, Buck quickly learns how lenient his original master was. Crated without food and water for a lengthy journey, the first human he encounters outside his box is armed with a club – and uses it.

While being transported through muddy Skagway, Alaska, Buck has an encounter with John Thornton, returning the man’s harmonica when it slips from his pocket. Up in Dawson City, Buck finds himself added to the back of Perrault and Francoise’s (Cara Gee, TV's 'The Expanse') sled team, taking the place of two former dogs led by Alaskan Malamute Spitz. After a few days of uncoordinated klutziness, Buck settles into place, but when he saves Francoise after she falls through ice, Perrault’s favoritism sparks Spitz’s jealousy. A fight ensues and, backed by the rest of the pack, Buck eventually wins, Spitz slinking off into the night. Against Perrault’s command, Buck takes the lead and the always-late Perrault begins breaking speed records.

It is this midsection of the movie that is perhaps its most enjoyable, Buck up against such natural enemies as avalanches in the service of the pragmatic yet kind Perrault and Françoise. But Perrault is called back to Quebec, his method of mail delivery outmoded, and his team is purchased by gold prospector Hal (Dan Stevens, TV's 'Downton Abbey') and his frivolous sister Mercedes (Karen Gillan, "Guardians of the Galaxy"). Stevens takes villainy to moustache-twirling extremes and who should step in to object to his treatment of his dogs but John Thornton. Bunking in with his old acquaintance, Buck recovers to discover his new master has too deep an attachment to the bottle, a man intent on drowning his sorrows. Eventually the dog’s ‘nagging’ gets to Thornton, so he drains his whiskey and sets off for the great unknown with Buck, settling in an old prospector’s cabin by a river with gold nuggets as big as his fist and a pretty white timber wolf that happens to be female.

It is a testament to London’s original work that cloaking it with computer graphics, softening its sting and riddling it with moments both eye-rolling (Buck’s collar lands on the road when he’s stolen) and sloppy (Thornton’s copious camping gear is nowhere to be found in his canoe, eyelines don’t always match up) cannot rob it of its essential message of finding one’s inner strength amidst the bounteous beauty of nature. Sy and Francois’s feminized version played by Gee strike just the right note of practicality and affection for their animals while Ford is the film’s MVP acting with a dog that isn’t actually there. While we may still have to wait for the definitive cinematic version of this classic, this “The Call of the Wild” works well enough as the kid-friendly version.