the call of the wild review

Most attempts to adapt the works of Jack London to the big screen have, more often than not, resulted in a neutered final product. Chris Sanders‘ live-action/computer-animated adaptation of The Call of the Wild falls firmly in this category.

Gone is the savage romance of London’s short novel in all its untamed glory, instead, The Call of the Wild is a Disney-fied The Revenant — though it’s even less a survival film than it is a schmaltzy celebration of that bond between dog and human. At parts, it feels more like A Dog’s Purpose film than the gritty wilderness tale of London’s original book. The funny thing is, London’s book was a direct rebuke to that bond, painting the majestic call of natural instinct as something more awesome and powerful than any human bond.

The Call of the Wild opens with Harrison Ford‘s weary narration of the story of Buck, an abnormally large St. Bernard/Scotch Collie mix who lives a comfortably domestic life under the ownership of the affluent Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford). The story unfolds through old pen drawings that reflect the newspaper illustrations of the time, showing the hoards of dogs sold to prospectors looking to get rich in northwestern Canada at the height of the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush. But as we fade from the yellowed newspaper illustration to real life, the uncanny computer-animated Buck barges in — a gentle giant whose every step seems to make his surroundings tremble. He’s a dog too big for this small town that he was raised in, but he’s even more out of his element when he is stolen and sold to freight haulers in Yukon. Confused and scared, Buck bears beatings and starvation before he is sold to a kindly French-Canadian gold courier (a delightfully cheery Omar Sy) and his partner Françoise (Cara Gee). Buck finds himself becoming more attuned to the sled-dog lifestyle, gaining the trust and respect of the other sled dogs, except for the angry leader Spitz, who starts to feel threatened by the new arrival.

The film puts Buck through several more hardships — including a cruel new master played with a campy glee by Dan Stevens (the role of the spoiled, greedy antagonist switched with Karen Gillan‘s slightly more empathetic take on the pampered socialite Mercedes) — before he lands in the arms of Ford’s John Thornton, an alcoholic prospector mourning the loss of his son. The story follows the broad strokes of London’s book fairly accurately, though with a more cautious touch when it comes to the violent dog fights and beatings of the source material, and giving a softer edge to its all the human characters, save for Stevens’ Hal, who the film builds up to be the Big Bad of the movie.

This is Sanders’ live-action directorial debut after the filmmaker cut his teeth co-directing Disney’s Lilo & Stitch and DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon to critical acclaim. There is a springiness to his direction that speaks to his animation savvy — the physics of the world are a little out of step with reality, with each tumble hitting a bit harder, and each action sequence a little more fantastical. But most notably, the computer-animated dogs lean more cartoonish than the muted photorealism of Disney’s The Lion King or The Jungle Book live-action remakes. Once you get over the uncanny valley of seeing dogs raise their eyebrows so many times, it becomes clear that this is intentional — the heightened gloss that coats the film, subduing its moments of violence and boosting its moments of sentimentality, has the fantastical feel of an animated film. It’s a choice that works for a family-friendly version of The Call of the Wild, but it had me wondering if this film would have been vastly improved by being an entirely animated film.

Why not just go all the way and make a fully animated The Call of the Wild? It would allow the filmmakers to better depict the dog-to-dog dynamics that are so essential to Buck’s arc (complete with actually expressive faces!) and allow the film to embrace the wilder, grim aspects of London’s original book without veering into exploitative dog-fight territory. I’m in no way advocating for more gritty dog violence — the sequences that actually do play out in The Call of the Wild were disturbing enough — but an animated take would have evened out the uneven mixture of tones in Sanders’ The Call of the Wild, with Buck’s goofy hijinks sitting uncomfortably with the bleak tale of bestial survival.

The film is at its best in its contemplative second half, when it finally lives up to the premise of London’s book: the primitive call of nature that beckons Buck away from the human world he had always known. Early in the film, that call takes an actual form, as a vision of a black wolf that appears to Buck whenever he’s in a crises. That literal manifestation of the call is strange but effective, but nowhere near as powerful as the long quiet stretches when Buck wanders through the wilderness to befriend the wolves that roam the Yukon mountains, as Ford’s prospector discovers an amazing trove of gold near the peaceful river cabin where he and Buck had traveled to escape civilization. Suspicions that Ford phoned it in for The Call of the Wild will be proven false, as the actor gives a wonderfully grizzled and vulnerable performance as a mourning father who drowns his sorrows in alcohol. Though his character is barely more than a series of familiar character traits, Ford lends him a good-humored humanity that matches well with Buck’s big-hearted gentle giant.

I wish The Call of the Wild would trust its audience to give it the quiet, contemplative but unapologetically savage film that embodies the latter half of the film, instead of inserting silly hijinks and Stevens’ scenery-chewing villain. Allow nature to run its course, for the story’s primal ode to the wilderness to be heard. It would break through the monotony of computer-animated creatures and sweet schmaltz. But alas, The Call of the Wild will fade into the latter category.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10

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