Film Review – The Call of the Wild (2020)
The Call of the Wild
Jack London’s classic book about the inner life of a domesticated dog who discovers the freedom from within was written over 100 years ago. But often classics are classics for a reason in that they continue to resonate. In this case the journey of Buck from loved but mischievous house pet to wild pack animal still packs a timeless wallop. So leave it to Disney to mine yet another well-known property to create their new film version of The Call of the Wild (2020).
Buck is a St. Bernard mix who lives with the kindly Judge Miller and his family. He is too big and rambunctious for domesticated life. He often finds himself getting into trouble. However, the Judge played by Bradley Whitford really does love this dog. Unfortunately, a scoundrel lures Buck into a container to kidnap him. He is transported to Alaska where he discovers himself in the life of a sled dog. Finding himself wary of some men but aware that others can be kind, he eventually helps a kindly mailman warmly portrayed by Omar Sy to make his long sled bound deliveries. It is amongst this sled pack that he discovers the dynamics of living with a pack. He is also haunted by the feeling of something more out there in the world which appears to him in visions of a wolf. After another round of misfortune, he ends up befriending the hermit John Thornton (a very engaged Harrison Ford). The man is mourning the loss of a child and the ending of a marriage. He has committed to being alone in the Alaskan wilderness. But Buck helps draw him out of his shell enough to care about the world again.
Buck is a CGI creation. That can normally sound like the death knell of anything organic or moving. But here it is mostly effective. There are no talking animals in this story. All animal emotion is shown through facial expression that is very believable. Admittedly, there are times where the uncanny valley is still occasionally not crossed. On the whole the daylight scenes look better than the nighttime CGI. Buck fights the leader of the sled pack for dominance during a night scene that ends up looking a little too much like a video game cut scene. But on the whole this use of animal computer animation is quite effective. Buck is a genuine character for whom you genuinely feel. This is likely in the same vein as Disney’s other recent live-ish action CGI animal movie remakes like The Lion King and The Jungle Book. But here it is much more engaging than it is distracting.
Also, this film scores a lot of points for being a moving bit of family entertainment. There are no anachronistic cheap pop-culture references or annoying low humor to distract from the story. This kind of movie can be sunk by a stupid dog poop joke or annoying record scratch with a quizzical raised eyebrow dog expression or some other irritating tweaking of the animal animation that is supposed to be outrageous but ends up just dating horribly. But this movie sticks to the book’s roots of telling a simple story of nature.
The cast is populated by mostly pleasant touches from the cast. It’s good to see Michael Horse of Twin Peaks fame appear as a voice of reason. Whitford’s judge doesn’t get much screen time but makes an impression as being a sweet man. Dan Stevens and Karen Gillan are the closest we come to over the top as an unpleasant couple looking to prospect for gold. Stevens might as well be twirling his Snidely Whiplash mustache and tying girls to railroad tracks. But conversely Harrison Ford is quite strong in the film. The second half is mostly him alone interacting with a CGI creature and it is totally believable. In recent years Ford has had a tendency to sleepwalk through movies, so it’s nice when he actually seems engaged in the material. Here he conveys his sadness and humor with a twinkle that is thoroughly fun.
The Call of the Wild is a very pleasant bit of family film making. It avoids being bloody which in a few scenes seems absurd. But if you are looking for a movie that will engage kids and won’t set their parents’ teeth on edge, this is a great candidate. This movie actually has me butting up against our normal letter grades. If there was some sort of in between rating I would happily give it. The B grade seems slightly too low, but a B+ might be seen as slight over praise. So when you see the rating, imagine a small plus next to it.