Despite their limited range when it comes to acting chops, man’s best friend has a long history of capturing the Hollywood spotlight. From my childhood alone, I still have fond memories of dog-centric fare like Beethoven, Homeward Bound and Air Bud, just to name a few. The tradition has been in hiring well-trained canines along with their corresponding handlers but the latest adaptation of The Call of the Wild takes a different approach. Instead of casting a real-life dog, Disney has chosen the CGI route and rendered a new digital Buck from the ground up. Technology is such that Buck often looks rather convincing, especially the more time we spend with him, but all the special effects in the world still can’t disguise a lackluster story.
The premise follows the broad strokes of the Jack London novel upon which it is based, still centered around the St. Bernard and Scotch Collie mix known as Buck. We follow him as he’s stolen from his pampered California life with the respected Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford) and shipped up to Alaska amidst the Gold Rush. After a temporary stint with cruel owners, he finds his way as a sled dog on a mail route with the much kinder Perrault (Omar Sy) and his wife Françoise (Cara Gee). Through teamwork and dedication, he is able to work his way up to alpha dog until the route is abruptly cancelled and he falls under new ownership by the odious city slicker Hal (Dan Stevens). Not longer after, he is rescued by outdoorsman John Thornton (Harrison Ford) and the two set off on a new adventure together.
The most important and prevalent hurdle for the film to manage is the believability of computer-generated Buck as a substitute for the on-screen flesh-and-blood canine to which we’re aquatinted. Save for a few frames here and there, I’m happy to report that the illusion worked quite seamlessly for me; I stopped thinking about whether the dog was “real” about 10 minutes in, which I would signify as a success. I appreciate that Buck appears not just in shadows or darkness, where it’s easy to conceal shoddy rendering, but also in many scenes in broad daylight. I had similar praise for Disney’s Lion King remake last year but thankfully, Buck is infinitely more expressive here than the stilted creatures in that production. Animators paid careful attention to all the mannerisms that make dogs so lovable in the first place, so every tail wag and eyebrow raise is calibrated for maximum potency.
The frustration sets in when we realize that director Chris Sanders and his screenwriter Michael Green brought very little new perspective to this tale, which has already been adapted several times for the big screen. Harrison Ford’s husky voiceover narration removes any iota of subtlety from each plot point, which may be helpful for younger viewers to track along but is sure to grow tedious for adult audiences. Understandably, Ford is prominently portrayed in the film’s poster and trailer but his character doesn’t really become a factor into the story until about an hour in. Once Buck and Ford share the screen, the movie’s true potential is unlocked but it takes multiple training montages and action sequences to get there.
More than any actor in the film, Ford makes us feel that Buck is not only real but a true companion to his lonely prospector character. Whether Buck is burying John’s troublesome bottle of whiskey or stashing John’s hat in his mouth, Ford brings the level of charm and playfulness that effortlessly recalls the Han Solo-Chewbacca relationship from the original Star Wars trilogy. If only the movie had spent more time with those two instead of wasting time with throwaway characters like Hal, a villain so comically over-the-top that I think Dan Stevens literally twirls his mustache at one point. The Call of the Wild is a serviceable update to a well-worn tale but it doesn’t quite have enough to make it stand out from the pack.
Score – 2.5/5
Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Invisible Man, starring Elisabeth Moss and Aldis Hodge, reimagines the classic H.G. Wells novel as a thriller about a woman who is being stalked by an abusive ex-boyfriend that nobody can see.
Playing at Cinema Center is Best International Feature Film Oscar nominee Pain and Glory, starring Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz, about a film director who reflects on the choices he’s made as past and present come crashing down around him.
Also playing at Cinema Center is After Midnight, starring Jeremy Gardner and Brea Grant, about a man who house is attacked nightly by an unseen creature after his girlfriend suddenly disappears.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup