The Call of the Wild

Review by Elena Lazic @elazic

Directed by

Chris Sanders

Starring

Cara Gee Harrison Ford Karen Gillan

Anticipation.

Harrison Ford and a CGI dog.

Enjoyment.

Suspense, fear and emotion.

In Retrospect.

A winning adaptation that never condescends its audience.

Harrison Ford and a CGI dog make for a pawsome pairing in this charming retelling of Jack London’s short story.

At a time when the majority of animated children’s movies seem to either be produced by Disney or closely follow the studio’s template and style, a new adaptation of Jack London’s famous short story ‘The Call of the Wild’ is very welcome. Indeed, although this story is no less allegorical than we’ve come to expect from those aimed at kids, this film still feels unusual in that it takes place in an often brutal world marked by greed, violence and an unstable climate. This elemental quality, dealing in extremes of weather but also of cowardice and courage, violence and tenderness, is precisely what makes this epic tale so appealing.

The main challenge for director Chris Sanders was how to recreate this visceral, powerful imagery through CGI. This is the first big-screen, non-animated retelling of ‘The Call of the Wild’ to not be shot on location or feature a real dog in the role Buck, the hero of the tale. But while computer animation can free artists from the constraints of reality, it can also allow them to enhance it.

That being said, this is hardly felt at the beginning of the film, where Buck is introduced as the spoilt dog of a rich family in the American South at the end of the 19th century. These charming opening scenes threaten to fall into the Uncanny Valley, with the domesticated animal making faces that appear a little too human-like (Buck’s expressions are based on a motion-capture performance by Terry Notary, memorable as the ape-like performer in Ruben Östlund’s The Square). But when Buck is dog-napped and sent to Alaska to be sold, the film thankfully moves away from anthropomorphising him.

Only then does the use of CGI really come to bear fruit. Bought by a French-Canadian postal worker (Omar Sy) and his assistant (Cara Gee), Buck joins a crew of other dogs. The sled sequences, which emphasise the speed and power of the dogs in a manner that would be very difficult to achieve (or at least film) with real animals, are genuinely thrilling. One particularly striking scene sees the sled-dog team move through rapidly changing landscapes; another later on involved one of the men becoming stuck beneath a frozen lake. Crucially, both are filmed from the dog’s perspective, which is naturally close to the ground and more attuned to the harshness of the physical world than a human’s.

As indicated by the title, this is a film about an animal recovering its wild side. But until Buck finally does so, he latches on to various human characters and with them, as Harrison Ford’s John Thornton mentions, he does not act like a beast. Rather, he behaves as man’s best friend, boundlessly enthusiastic and curious – in short, throughout most of the film, he acts like a domestic animal. This is key to the film’s success: while the discovery that so often defines adventure films is typically tied to child characters, in The Call of the Wild it is a dog who reflects our own sense of wonder.

In staying with Buck, the film gains a rare directness that makes every bump in the road to freedom deeply felt. Augmenting this are the human characters, who heighten the allegorical elements of the film. Ford is particularly moving as Thornton, who has been rewritten to bring out the more empathetic and existential aspects of his character. Rather than being portrayed as a mere prosector, here he seeks to complete the trip he had promised to one day make with his son.

The changes to the character of Hal (Dan Stevens), too, a rich and cruel man who buys Buck and his four-legged pals to assist his search for gold, are shrewd, serving to highlight the wickedness of greed while omitting a racist plot point near the story’s end. While the violence is similarly tempered (no dogs, CGI or otherwise, die in this picture), the film remains pleasantly punchy, never attempting to make Buck’s increasingly dominant wild side more palatable.

Published 17 Feb 2020

Tags: Chris Sanders Harrison Ford

Anticipation.

Harrison Ford and a CGI dog.

Enjoyment.

Suspense, fear and emotion.

In Retrospect.

A winning adaptation that never condescends its audience.

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