Jack London’s 1903 novel, gets yet another adaptation. This time starring Harrison Ford and an all computer generated canine. Yes you heard that right, it stars Harrison Ford, but he is far from the problem. Did I mention his co-star is an all computer generated canine? Well it’s just as ridiculous as it sounds as it crosses the lines between goofy looking, distracting and unrealistic. There is just too much computer work in our heroic canine that makes it impossible to over look and keep you invested in the film. What’s even worse is not only is the animals created in an unconvincing CGI, but so is the landscapes as it’s altered, painted over or completely fabricated. Harrison Ford is truly the best thing about the movie, his performance is both grounded and quietly powerful. There is no real big set pieces except for one early in the picture. A sense of big adventure is missing from the picture, and doesn’t feel adventurous at all. Skip “The Call Of The Wild”, and instead log onto Disney+, grab the family and take the real call from the far superior Willem Dafoe dog adventure “Togo”.
The first film to be released under the new 20th Century Studios name (since Disney had bought out 20th Century Fox). “The Call of the Wild” is the latest to in a long line of big screen adaptations of Jack London’s short adventure novel, that was published in 1903 and was set in the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s.
Big stars from Clark Gable to Charlton Heston to Rutger Hauer has played John Thornton, whose path crosses with a massive St. Bernard-Collie mix named Buck, who led a posh and pampered life as a pet in California before he was stolen and sold as a sled dog. In the newest adaptation of the London novel, Indiana Jones and Han Solo himself, Harrison Ford takes on the role of Thornton and nobody has been better suited to the role than Ford. While he is the best actor to inhabit the role, it doesn’t mean that the film he is in, is the best of the adaptations. For me that honor goes to Clark Gable’s film, but it shouldn’t go without saying that Harrison Ford is by far the best thing in the 2020 film.
I’m a sucker for a great dog movie. They are always heartwarming and uplifting, and within recent years we have gotten some great additions to the genre. A great movie about canines and their humans, gets someone like me emotionally invested because I know that’s a real dog, or in certain cases multiple dogs playing the canine. The furry star becomes a part of the family, getting into mischief, being a source of uplift to anyone around and living that good doggie life. This movie has none of that and that includes an absence of a real pooch.
Much of the first half of “The Call of the Wild” focuses on Buck’s growth from a clumsy goofball to the lead sled dog for the postal delivery duo of Perrault (Omar Sy) and Francoise (Cara Gee). After the postal route is discontinued, the dogs are sold to Hal (Dan Stevens), an abusive jerk of a gold prospector who, knows nothing about the Yukon and cruelly overworks Buck and the team. That’s where John Thornton comes to the rescue of Buck and rescues him from Hal.
Despite Harrison Ford’s famous name being on the poster, it’s all about the canine. I miss the good old days of real animals in real performances. At least recent dog adventures “A Dog’s Journey”, “A Dog’s Purpose” and “The Art Of Racing In The Rain” had real canine’s. I also get the fact that “The Call Of The Wild” has Buck committing some pretty extreme actions in putting the pup in severe cold, through other trials and tribulations at the mercy of nature, that you can’t do with a real dog. But here, the CG technology (and a big chunk of a $100+ million budget) went to crafting an all digital dog, one which crosses the lines between goofy looking, distracting and unrealistic.
All of the main dogs and wolves in “The Call of the Wild” are created in CGI and they’re so expressive that we keep expecting and wondering if they are going to start talking, like their computer-generated counterparts in “The Lion King” and “Dolittle”. The CGI is a problem, the animals are so over the top expressive, the technology undercuts the emotional impact of the story.
There is just too much computer work in our heroic canine that makes it impossible to over look and keep me invested in the film. What’s even worse is not only is the animals created in an unconvincing CGI, but so is the landscapes as it’s altered, painted over or completely fabricated.
The visual recreations of the vast Northern landscape, gets help from none other than Janusz Kaminski, one of the top cinematographers of the day and frequent Steven Spielberg collaborator, lending his eye to the production. Also it should be noted that “Walk The Line” and “Ford v Ferrari” director James Mangold serves as producer.
As beautiful as it can often look, there is an abundance of CGI that makes everything look wonky and clearly green-screened. The CGI gets wonky can, especially when they get in for close-ups on Buck and the other animals. Acting entirely alongside a CGI dog, and sharing all the movie’s emotional moments with him, couldn’t have been an easy task, but Ford the veteran that he is sells it like a pro. While Ford doesn’t have his first big scene until forty minutes into the movie. He gives a grounded, quietly powerful performance as a reclusive, regret-filled, self-pitying old-timer who crawls out of the bottle and finds a renewed sense of purpose thanks to Buck.
Dan Stevens is a fine actor (who was so good as Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey”), gives a desperately intense and villainous performance, who becomes so unhinged he plays it like a crazed stalker in a slasher movie. Stevens villain has a dastardly cartoonish, feel about him. It feels as though he is about to twirl his mustache as he is likely to shoot Buck or tie him to the railroad tracks as he keeps twirling that mustache in the process.
I thought there would be a more sense of adventure. Except for a race between a dog sled and an avalanche, it lacks a needed injection of adventure. The big set piece is with Omar Sky’s portion of the film (the first half of the film), it’s the only big set thrilling piece in the whole picture. That sense of big adventure is missing from the picture, and doesn’t feel adventurous at all.
If you can take your mind out off all the CGI extravaganza (good luck with that), “The Call of The Wild” would have been a heartwarming classic story, affectionately retold. While it moves quickly, at a brisk 95 minutes. The unnecessary CGI done by the motion capture work of Terry Notary, who has done much better work in the recent “Planet Of The Apes” movies.
Given the old-fashioned-ness of everything except the expensive pooches, it’s hard to say if audiences will be swept away by it all as they would’ve years ago. There’s very little adventure, and the stakes are not cataclysmic. More concerned with driving home themes about reconnecting with nature after living so far detached from it, as we see it all through the perspective of a dog.
I’d feel better to instead recommend the Disney+ original film “Togo” with Willem Dafoe over “The Call Of The Wild”. Like Harrison Ford, Dafoe’s performance is fantastic. But “Togo” has better set pieces, visual effects and the best thing about it…it has no CGI canine. Skip “The Call Of The Wild”, and instead log onto Disney+, grab the family and take the call from the far superior film “Togo”.
GRADE: ★★☆☆☆ (2/5)