The Call of the Wild, 2020.
Directed by Chris Sanders.
Starring Harrison Ford, Dan Stevens, Omar Sy, Cara Gee, Bradley Whitford and Karen Gillan.
A pampered St. Bernard finds himself forced to adjust to a more dangerous world when he is kidnapped and sold for a profit.
You’d be forgiven for raising something an eyebrow when taking a look at marketing for The Call of the Wild. They got Harrison Ford to spend several weeks in the wilderness with a big, slobbery dog? The answer to that question is, perhaps unsurprisingly, that they did nothing of the sort. This umpteenth adaptation of Jack London’s turn-of-the-20th-century novel was largely built inside a computer, with Ford acting in front of a green screen and Planet of the Apes veteran Terry Notary doing a reasonable amount of motion-capture work to play the adorable St. Bernard dog Buck, from somewhere deep within the Uncanny Valley.
That sounds like a slightly snarky introduction – and it is – but the film is a disarming treat wrapped in very conventional clothing. On the surface, it’s the hundredth puppy peril movie of the last few years – A Dog’s Purpose, A Dog’s Journey and A Dog’s Way Home are, believe it or not, different films – and has little to distinguish it from those stories, beyond the handsome CGI backdrops. However, it emerges as an adorable family adventure with heart to spare and plenty of thrills.
Buck starts as the pampered, roguish companion of a judge (Bradley Whitford), until a messy mishap at a birthday party leads to him sleeping outside and falling victim to a gang of puppy-snatchers. He is taken to The Yukon – described in Ford’s pleasantly gruff voice-over as “the edge of nowhere” – and sold, first to dog sled postman Perrault (Omar Sy) and then to money-grabbing posh boy Hal (Dan Stevens). Throughout, Buck repeatedly crosses paths with Ford’s rugged outdoorsman John Thornton.
In this stage of Ford’s glittering career, it’s often entirely obvious when he’s motivated and when he simply isn’t. For every Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there’s an Ender’s Game. The role of Thornton – played in the past by the likes of Clark Gable, Charlton Heston and Rutger Hauer – is perfect for this stage of his career. Buried beneath a tangled meadow of grizzled mountain man facial hair and growling every line of voice-over and dialogue like he’s about to shoo some kids off his lawn, this is a performance of terrific grouchiness.
But one of the joys of the movie is the way that Thornton and the other human characters soften under the influence of Buck, who serves as a clear analogy for the innocence of the non-human world. In a story that places great, and timely, emphasis upon the way people exploit the planet, there’s a delightful tingle in the way he improves every human being with whom he interacts. The third act sees him battle between his affection for Thornton and the titular, inherent drive to return to the wilderness. It’s a nicely realised emotional push-and-pull that communicates the power of the natural world.
There is, initially at least, something very distracting about the use of a wholly CGI dog to portray Buck. However, much like the de-aging work in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, there’s enough impressive storytelling here from veteran animation director Chris Sanders that the slightly ropey effects work becomes less significant as the movie unfolds. By the third time I was reduced to tears, it seemed churlish to complain about the unconvincing canine protagonist.
It would be wrong to laud The Call of the Wild as some revelatory adventure, because it’s largely content to follow the snowy footsteps of previous adaptations and the many tales the original text inspired. Dan Stevens is excellent as the sneery rich boy villain and Omar Sy provides nice warmth as the surprisingly driven boss of the sled dog postal service, but it’s Ford who really makes an impact with his thoughtful, measured performance. He’s certainly more subtle than John Powell’s score, which is reminiscent of James Horner’s Braveheart soundtrack in its commitment to honking grandeur.
The Call of the Wild, much like its adorable leading pup, understands its place in the world and is content to play the Saturday morning adventure hits in crowd-pleasing fashion. Anyone who has ever loved a dog will not be able to get through this without reaching for a tissue. There’ll be plenty of Ford-like, grizzled men claiming that the cinema has too much dust in the air.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.