I’ll be honest. It took me about a third of the way through The Call of the Wild before the film won me over. Not because it started out bad, but because I felt like I fell for a bait-and-switch.
First, I was disappointed to discover that all of the animals in the film were not real, but created in CGI. I shouldn’t have been surprised. The press release for the film clearly states that the movie was considered a “live-action/animation hybrid” with “cutting edge visual effects and animation technology in order to render the animals in the film as fully photorealistic–and emotionally authentic–characters.” I didn’t realize that Buck, the large star of the film, would also made from pixels. From the first moments Buck comes on the screen, it’s pretty obvious that this isn’t a real dog. I found the look of the animation to be off and distracting.
With that said, the animation didn’t seem to bother the other people enjoying the screening with me. Many of them, young as well as old, made “awww” and “ohhh” sounds throughout the film whenever anything “cute” happened on screen.
Second, understanding that this was a Harrison Ford picture, I was quickly disillusioned when he failed to show up on the screen. He narrates the story and appears in a short scene near the beginning of the film, but his part of the story doesn’t really come about until the last third of the movie.
Had I read the 1903 novel by Jack London, I probably would have known. Even so, the trailers for the movie are misleading making it appear as if Ford would be featured more than he actually is. The trailers even put scenes from different parts of the movie back-to-back making it look like a different movie than the one I saw. For instance, in one trailer shown on TV, it appears that Ford comes face-to-face with a big bear. While there is a bear in the movie, he shares no screen time with Ford. Probably wasn’t in his contract.
With those things aside, The Call of the Wild is actually a very good family movie about Buck, a 140-pound St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix. Set in 1897 during the Gold Rush, Buck is a spoiled dog living with a rich family who clearly don’t know a thing about training canines as he is out of control. After one particularly difficult day, he sent to sleep outside of the house and becomes stolen.
Buck is then sold off two French-Canadian dispatchers, François (Cara Gee) and Perrault (Omar Sy), who take Buck to Alaska. There, Buck becomes the newest member of the mail delivery dog sled team from the Canadian government. Though he’s the newest and greenest member, he’s the biggest and Perrault has even bigger expectations of him.
Knowing nothing about how to be a sled dog, Buck has to learn the hard way. It is during this journey that he hears “the call of the wild” in the form of a ghostly wolf. As this calling leads him, Buck learns how to become a leader and a successful sled dog looking out for the other dogs.
Although Gee and Sy appear in the film for about as long as Ford does, they get very little mention which is a shame as they are both very good in their roles with Perrault with his lofty dreams of getting the mail delivered on time and François’ doubt that anything good could come from Buck.
As the story goes on, circumstances change, and Buck is sold yet again to Hal (Dan Stevens) and his wife Mercedes (Karen Gillan). Hal is a city slicker with dreams of finding gold and making it rich. His ego is bigger than his dog sledding skills. He is even warned by John Thornton (Ford) that he shouldn’t take the trip. But Hal is stubborn is convinced that John knows where the gold is and wants to keep it all for himself. Steven’s performance as Hal is over-the-top fun. I still can’t get over how he turns the word “mush” into a punchline. He’s played villains before, but he looks like he’s really enjoying it this time.
Eventually, Buck meets up with John again and finds himself living out yet another lifestyle in the wilderness and away from people – but closer to the calling. We learn that John is still struggling with the death of his son many years ago. It’s a good thing that Buck is there to help. This last third of the story is best of the film and the interaction between the two characters is surprisingly touching.
While trying to show the harshness of living out in the Alaskan wilderness, The Call of the Wild is fairly tame. In fact, some people have called the film, “The Call of the Mild” but I didn’t mind. This is a family film through and through but with an elevated script featuring no pratfalls or poop jokes. There is virtually no swearing and only a little violence.
There really isn’t anything in the film that (most) parents would find objectionable. At the same time, the film doesn’t shy away from showing some of life’s harsher moments of living in Alaska in 1897. From bullying to the death of a loved one, each scene is told honestly and with compassion.
Through the dog is not real, The Call of the Wild is an entertaining and heartwarming story thanks to good storytelling and capable actors. Buck should serve as inspiration for kids. He becomes a hero because of his hard work, perseverance and kindness.
Main image: 20th Century Studios
I write about arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.