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Harrison Ford

Harrison Ford in a scene from 'Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny'. Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd. / Disney

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

The Indiana Jones films are among the most popular blockbusters of all time: beginning with Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), followed by the prequel Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), then Indiana Jones and the Lost Crusade (1989). It was almost twenty years before the fourth chapter was released: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). This last received the poorest reviews and the weakest response. Stephen Spielberg directed all four films, with Harrison Ford starring as Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones, Jr., an archeology professor. Worldwide grosses have approached two billion dollars. 

In between the third and fourth films, a television series, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, followed Jones as a child and youth. Twenty-eight episodes and four made-for-television films ran from 1992 through 1994. In addition, dozens of books, comic books, toys, and other tie-ins surround the Jones icon.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge, as Helena, and Harrison Ford, as Indiana Jones, star in ‘Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.’ Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd./Disney

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny opens in the closing days of World War II. Jones faces Nazi adversaries as he attempts to recover the Lance of Longinus. The German officers reveal Hitler believes the relic to contain extraordinary powers that could reverse the course of the war. The Lance is a fake, but Nazi astrophysicist Jürgen Voller has found half of Archimedes’ Dial, an invention of the ancient Syracusan mathematician said to be able to locate fissures in time. 

After an extended fight and chase on a train, Voller is killed (spoiler alert: he is not), and half of the Dial is supposedly lost (spoiler alter: it is not). Of course, Jones and sidekick, archaeologist Basil Shaw, survive.

The action jumps from 1944 to July 1969, just after the moon landing. Borderline alcoholic Jones, a passionless professor at New York City’s Hunter College, instructs indifferent students on the eve of his forced retirement. His son, Mutt, died in Viet Nam, and his wife, Marion Ravenwood, left him. Enter his goddaughter, Helena Shaw, Basil’s only child. Helena seeks the Dial, and while Jones had promised the near-insane Basil to destroy it, he preserved it in the college storeroom.

While retrieving it, Jones and Helena are attacked by muscle sent by Voller, now a scientist working for NASA. During this melee, Helena reveals herself to be less a student of archeology and more a mercenary treasure hunter planning to sell the Dial fragment in a Tangiers black-market auction. What ensues is a world-crossing journey, with a plethora of fights and escapes. These—the film’s raison d’être—are slightly cartoonish but grandly, energetically executed. However, they are too long. Much, much too long. 

Somewhere along the way, the series traded its signature humor and bold but neatly developed characters for impressive but bloated action sequences: extended chases in narrow streets and open spaces, replete with rooftop leaps, helicopters, planes, motorcycles, and innumerable cars. There is even an escape on horseback through a parade, invading the New York City subway.

With a few exceptions, the body count is composed of expendable characters. The almost bloodless violence borders on heightened slapstick, with square-landed punches usually followed by an attempt at a wry quip. The core villain, Voller, could be straight out of a Hollywood propaganda film; his henchmen are the usual obedient thugs. Helena’s sidekick, Teddy Kumar, vaguely replicates Short Round from the earlier films.

So much of The Dial of Destiny is an homage to Indiana Jones, one through three. While the trio paid tribute to the serials of the 1930s and ‘40s, Dial celebrates the trilogy. As soon as the chords of John Williams’ unmistakable underscore play, Jones saves the day (or at least the moment). But building an entire two hours and twenty minutes on waves of nostalgia comes up, if not empty, certainly less than satisfying. The film’s climax, a bizarre sword-and-sandal sequence, becomes uncomfortably comical and slightly clumsy.

While Ford announced this would be his final performance in the role, he remains in fine form as the curmudgeonly Jones, with his have-hat-and-whip-will-travel presence. He continues making the most incredible situations palatable. (Perhaps the CGI that renders the prologue’s younger Jones is the most extraordinary special effect.) 

Phoebe Waller-Bridge creates a quirky, amoral Helena, a great foil for Jones. She infuses the grifter with a mix of noir femme fatale and girl-next-door charm. Mads Mikkelsen’s Voller succeeds as the typically erudite fascist with requisite lip-curling contempt. Ethann Isidore manages to avoid precociousness as Teddy.

The supporting cast play mostly enlarged cameos. Antonio Banderas twinkles as Renaldo, a boat captain. John Rhys-Davies is delightful in his return as Jones’ old friend, Sallah. Toby Jones strikes the right balance between sanity and madness as Basil. Shaunette Renée Wilson gives one of the more dimensional performances as a government agent. 

While forging no new ground, those looking for another chapter in the saga will be either disappointed with its failure to compete with the earlier films or delighted with its improvement over the fourth, ill-conceived outing. With exotic locations, Teutonic villains, time travel, giant bugs, eel-filled waters, and enough stolen car chases for a dozen films, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny neither improves nor weakens the franchise. 

Disney recently announced that The Dial of Destiny is the final entry. And while not perfect closure, it is good enough to draw the curtain on four decades of epic adventure.

Rated PG-13, the film is now playing in local theaters.

Harrison Ford and his digitally rendered best friend in a scene from the film.

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