The Call of the Wild is a classic tale that has withstood the test of time. Since it was first serialized in The Saturday Evening Post over a century ago in 1903, Jack London’s story about the pull and power of nature has received numerous adaptations. The last one, 1997’s The Call of the Wild: Dog of the Yukon, was heralded as the best version yet. Two decades later, and four years after The Jungle Book drove Hollywood headfirst into the uncanny valley of photorealistic CG animals, the time seems ripe to introduce the story to a new generation.
The Call of the Wild is centered around a massive dog named Buck (played by motion-capture expert Terry Notary), who goes through life with a variety of different masters. At the start of the film, he is owned by Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford) and lives a carefree spoiled lifestyle as the town’s residential canine. Buck is stolen from his home one day and sold into service as a sled dog, where he experiences mistreatment at the hands of cruel men. He ends up in the Yukon pulling a mail carrier sled owned by a kind man named Perrault (Omar Sy) and his wife Francoise (Cara Gee). Here, Buck learns how to survive in harsh and frozen conditions while also gaining confidence through being part of a pack. Fate intervenes in Buck’s life once again, however, and by the film’s third act he has become a companion to John Thornton (Harrison Ford), a lonely wanderer looking for one last adventure.
Buck and the rest of the film’s animals are entirely CG creations brought to life with advanced motion capture techniques. There are obvious benefits to this for no real animals have to risk harm or be forced to perform and you can make these characters behave exactly how you want them to. The technology has come a long way and Notary, whose motion-capture resume includes the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy, Kong: Skull Island, and the last two Avengers films, certainly deserves praise for his ability to transform himself into a quadrupedal creature. Yes, even despite how funny or odd it may look during the actual shooting process. To the visual effects crew’s credit, Buck feels like a living breathing being that garners empathy far more often than he does not.
Although there are still limitations. Some movements made by Buck and his fellow canines look unnatural and rubbery. The dogs’ faces, mostly during moments when they are meant to look cute or funny, come across as far too cartoonish. While The Call of the Wild is an obvious choice to employ these remarkable effects- the problem lies in the fact that the technology may not be all the way there yet. For a story whose entire basis is the untamed and wild beauty of nature, the pristine and sanitized look that comes with computer-generated imagery stands in stark contrast to that message.
The film still manages to stay on solid ground thanks to the strength of its storytelling. Director Chris Sanders (Lilo & Stitch, How to Train Your Dragon) is a master at crafting accessible stories to younger audiences without ever babying them. The grimmer elements of his previous films find their way into The Call of the Wild as well. Buck’s miseries are hardly shied away from, be they a fight against another dog or a beating from a man with a club. His journey is both harrowing and enthralling; victorious moments feel appropriately triumphant. Paired with a screenplay by Michael Green (American Gods, Blade Runner 2049), Sanders’ direction shows an obvious love for the source material- making the film a riveting and heartening adventure for all ages.
There are some changes from the original story in this adaptation. At one point in the novel where a dog dies, the film has him simply walk into the night in an attempt to keep his fate ambiguous. Near the end of the book, characters are killed by Native American “savages” who are then slaughtered by Buck himself in an act of revenge. For obvious reasons, this is omitted entirely and a different climax is written in its place. This adaptation of The Call of the Wild is a solid and timeless story. It is hard not to get attached to the big and furry beast at its center. Despite awkward effects and a third act that stalls the film’s momentum, it is a well-rounded film that can grow to become somewhat of a classic.
Score: ★★★ 1/2