By Jeffrey Sanzel
Published in 1903, Jack London’s novella Call of the Wild has become a classic, read by people of all ages. Set in the Yukon during the 1890s Gold Rush, it follows the adventures of Buck, a dog stolen and sold. The book shows Buck’s gradual shift from domestication to feral, a portrait of the power and influence of nature and environment. It is a vivid and brutal story of survival, with animals given human thoughts. Film adaptations began with the 1923 silent movie with notable versions in 1935 (starring Clark Gable), 1972, 1981 and 1997.
Now Chris Sanders, in his live-action debut, has directed a script by Michael Green. Using the book’s inciting incidents and cherry-picking elements of the story, this is a gentler, friendlier and more politically correct manifestation, dropping many of the book’s violent episodes and removing the particularly anti-Native American sections.
The story begins as the book’s did. Buck, a St. Bernard/Scotch collie, lives in Santa Clara, California, with his master, Judge Miller (a nice cameo by Bradley Whitford). After being stolen and shipped north, he is sold into the service of a mail-delivering dogsled team.
Run by two kind French Canadians (played charmingly if only slightly over the top by Omar Sy and Cara Gee), Buck finds joy and fulfillment in becoming part of the pack. He runs into trouble with the vicious pack leader, a husky named Spitz (who comes across like a ferocious Mean Girl). Buck vanquishes Spitz and takes his place.
Buck’s growth in his new position results in several rescues, whereby he earns love, loyalty and appreciation. During his journey, he has visions of a wolf, full eyes a-blazing, evidently symbolizing his deeper connection to his ancestral roots.
When the mail route is replaced by the telegraph, Buck and his compatriots are sold to Hal (Dan Stevens practically twirling his moustache). This is the film’s most resounding false note with villains who seem to have been lifted from One Hundred and One Dalmatians.
Buck is rescued by Jack Thornton (Harrison Ford, full on grizzle). Buck and Thornton had crossed paths earlier and now forge a deep bond. Thornton is running from his demons: the loss of his son that led to the crumbling of his marriage and an apparent drinking problem. Buck’s companionship on a journey further north brings Thornton back to life. Harrison, who also serves as narrator, finds humor and depth throughout, and his love for his newfound friend is wholly believable.
The tone and style of this Call of the Wild harkens back to the Wonderful World of Disney of the 1970s. The sense of adventure is a wholesomeness one; its heart beat is the joys of nature with only a few and fairly minor moments of real ferocity. The film never fully embraces the question of domestication versus the savage and untamed, making the deeper animal instincts into something gently spiritual rather than instinctual.
The main cavil is with the CGI. Buck — and all of the animals in the film, including every dog, wolf, bird, rabbit, fish and caribou — have an odd, almost cartoonish feel. It is clear that the creators have made a choice to anthropomorphize, giving the dogs in particular human-like expressions. It is a choice and one that almost works in context — certainly better than it did in the recent Lion King. And these dogs are far more honest than the humans embarrassingly cavorting in the disastrous Cats. That the dogs don’t ever fully blend into the universe is also due in part to settings that also seem primarily CGI. Often, it feels like a Yukon virtual reality ride.
Ultimately, these complaints don’t negate the film. Call of the Wild is engaging from beginning to end. It tells its story fluidly, with a wide-eyed sincerity. It has plenty of thrills and is touching and sweet in its more pastoral scenes. And while it never truly emulates nature, the film is certainly a celebration of family entertainment.
Rated PG, Call of the Wild is now playing in local theaters
Photos courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox