MPAA Rating: PG/ Genre: Adventure/ Stars: Harrison Ford, Omar Sy, Dan Stevens, Karen Gillan, Bradley Whitford, Colin Woodell, Cara Gee, Scott MacDonald, Abraham Benrubi, Micah Fitzgerald, Terry Notary/ Runtime: 100 minutes
I feel it is safe to start this review off by saying that if ever there was a book that was over a century old and that was still being even half-heartedly read in schools to this day that was not Shakespeare, I feel that Jack London’s The Call of the Wild would most assuredly fit that billing. Yet while this timeless story has been brought to the big screen a few times the facts that the last theatrical take was all the way back in 1975 and a lot has come and gone in the world of movie magic seem to indicate that the time is right for this saga to get a brand new adaptation for the silver screen. Yet for this particular go-around, it seems that the major wrinkle in this take that is scribed by the 2017 remake of Murder On The Orient Express’ Michael Green and helmed by How to Train Your Dragon’s Chris Sanders is that the main dog hero of the story Buck has been conjured up through the power of computer effects rather than giving some lucky Lassie or Rin Tin Tin out there the chance to play him. Suffice it to say then is quite the risky move on the part of the movie since making the main character CGI’d to the hilt whilst trying to make him look as real as you can could very well see the whole film fall apart on you if you are not able to make it work. Suffice it to say then dear reader that thankfully for the film the effects are able to work…even if the definition of something working in this case really does look a suspiciously awful lot like the words passable, just enough, barely, or my personal favorite, all of the above.
The plot is as follows: As noted above The Call of the Wild tells the story of a character by the name of Buck. Buck, we quickly learn, is a huge dog residing in Northern California and is the known pet of the local judge in the area. We also learn that Buck is not trained in the slightest, something of a local nightmare should you cross paths with him, but a good dog and a content dog nonetheless. However that all changes when Buck finds himself dognapped and taken north since a dog of his size could actually be quite useful in what was known then as the Yukon as we see many a man were there and attempting, mostly in vain, to hunt down that elusive commodity known only as gold. Thankfully Buck doesn’t wind up there. Instead he ends up being owned by a couple who are in charge of a sled dog team that delivers the mail to the scattered and isolate communities up North. To say that it takes Buck a little while to get used to this new way of living is something of an understatement, but eventually he manages to get the hang of things. Yet it isn’t until he meets a man by the name of Jack Thornton that we see Buck finally beginning to ponder if maybe his path in life isn’t one that is defined by cozy nights around a fire or other domesticated perks, but maybe out in the vast and untamed wilderness where he can truly know what it’s like to live life on his terms, and above all, to live free….
Now even though the previous takes on this literary source material all chose to use a real dog to bring the story to life, Hollywood has managed to in the time since show with the 2016 Jungle Book and 2019 Lion King that we can now bring animals to life through the computer. Yet with that being said, it should be noted that the CGI in this film is not quite up to the bar set up by 2016’s Jungle Book. I say that because whilst there will not be a minute of the film where you will feel like Buck is a “real dog” since there is always something slightly skewered about him, the CGI still is decent enough to operate as intended. Also there are some moments where the film does glitch a little bit courtesy of Buck being given moments of not needed physical comedy and the result makes him look like he is trying to emulate Scooby-Doo and the film looking more like the cinematic on a next-gen video game. Yes by and large it works decently enough for the vast majority of the movie, but I also feel that everyone’s reaction to it will be different. Not just the CGI mind you, but also because Buck does go through some difficulties in this film and seeing him treated the way that he is most likely will strike a nerve with some potential movie goers out there and I completely understand and empathize. In that respect then it should be noted that whilst the original source material does tend to get fairly brutal, this take on it has managed to bring that as far down as it possibly can thus getting a delightful and quite family-accessible MPAA PG rating thus meaning you can show this to your 8-year old puppy and they should be able to handle a fair amount of it (if not the whole thing).
With that being said, I guess it should be noted that I do have an interesting quandary when it comes to this film, but primarily one that deals with main human actor in this film, and screen icon, Harrison Ford. I say that because even though I am the kind of person who strongly is in the camp that if we let Harrison Ford read through a section of a phone book, he could help cure insomnia forever, I also feel it should be said that his presence in at least the beginning half of this slice of cinematic pie might not have been needed. Indeed, mostly being heard rather than seen, the narration being provided by Dr. Solo seems like it was meant to clue us into whatever Buck’s thought process is in regards to what he is dealing with, but by and large it just feels like we are hearing Indy tell us exactly what is playing out on screen. I mean I don’t know maybe there was just a majority opinion around the office that if this slice of cinematic pie could afford to get Ford to sign on the dotted line, then either they should get their money’s worth down to the half penny or there was a fear that audiences would storm the exits if there was nothing heard during the by and large silent moments where Buck is propelling the action forward on his own. Whatever the reason, it should be noted that the film does take care of things fairly well when comprehending just what is taking place or how Buck is feeling when it’s just him and other animals on the celluloid screen. Also when Ford does finally join the party in the flesh on a more permanent footing the movie does get better, but this is Harrison Ford we are talking about so I can’t lie to you and say I am that surprised. I guess the big reason though that things improve is because Ford actually makes the character of Buck feel like he is actually a “real dog” rather the offspring of some computer.
Indeed the vast majority of the second half of the film is just the 2 of them and Ford does a wonderful job of making the dynamic between Jack and Buck feel that much more realistic. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that the performance Ford gives also looks better when putting him up beside some of the more human thespians in the film. Oh don’t get me wrong Bradley Whitford is fine in his extended cameo and Omar Sy is a true delight so I don’t mean them. I mean the “dynamic duo” that is Dan Stevens and Karen Gillan who, despite having done much better in other movies, show up here as a duo of upper-class nitwits who want to make some serious cheddar yet also are clearly and hopelessly lost about how to survive in the wild. Now if these 2 were only in the film to serve as comedy fodder I would not have as big of an issue, but Stevens instead becomes the main human antagonist, incidentally a change from the source material that was made because the original conclusion is very much rooted in the time it was written. Ultimately though, Stevens’ character just feels like the odd man out in a film where, by and large, it is trying to play things on the level. I mean if this were remaking an animated movie like Balto and he were voicing the main dog antagonist (because diphtheria clearly doesn’t need a voice talent) then it might work, but this is not that movie. As a result this performance doesn’t work nearly as well as it might have under a completely different checklist of circumstances.
All in all I think it is more than safe to say that one big grievance I have consistently heard in regards to the vast majority of tales in the subgenre of entertainment be it books, movies, etc. known as “a boy and his dog” are that, at the end of the day, the story is more about the boy than the dog. Thankfully while this film does ensure that the boy in the form of the character that is portrayed in this by Harrison Ford does receive an arc that is both proper and cinematically fulfilling, the film also makes sure to, before anything else, place front and center the fact that this is a slice of cinematic pie revolving around a journey, from a physical, pathos, and psychological point of view of our main intrepid canine hero Buck. I guess then if looking at the film from that distinct angle, Buck does manage to evolve and undergo growth throughout the duration of this slice of cinematic pie’s 1 hr, 40 minute runtime. Indeed even if you don’t really view him as an actual canine per se, he still is quite the enjoyable character to follow, and in all fairness, this is also not the first time I have been politely yet firmly asked to care about a protagonist who was completely evolved from special effects work (Blue from the Jurassic World movies anyone?) To that end, I think I can safely say that the level of enjoyment that you, the viewer will be able to glean from this particular take on the iconic story that is The Call of the Wild will fall on just how much empathy you are willing to afford the CGI’d to the hilt Buck. However, I find that although doing so will definitely make you put your disbelief in the hall closet for at least a little while, but should you be able to do so then I promise you that the journey you are about to find yourself embarking on will be worth it to some degree or another. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Call of the Wild “2020” a solid 3 out of 5.