I wasn’t aware going in to the screening of the new “Call of the Wild” that all of the dogs were computer-generated. It took me a while to figure this out, and I found it an astounding way to illustrate the story of Buck, the dog at the center of the novel. In fact, the movie takes on a mythic quality as this animal goes through his version of the hero’s journey.
The story begins with Buck living the idyllic life of a spoiled pet in a judge’s house in California. He roams the streets of his town with impunity to any bad-dog activities. The staff at his home are wary of his food plundering and rambunctiousness. This was the point in the film when I realized that Buck was a CGI creation as no dog could be trained to pull off the precise moves that transpire.
While he was in town, a dog smuggler noticed Buck. He knows that dogs of his size are being sold for big money in the Yukon. It is the 1890’s and the gold rush of that place is on.
Buck ends up being forced to sleep outside because he destroys a table full of food that was left unattended outside for a party. From the porch, he is lured by the dog thief and taken away.
As Buck soon discovers, the people who dog-napped him are not nice. Buck is struck with a weapon by one of the evil smugglers. We see him next on a boat heading into Skagway, Alaska. The man who buys him sells him to be part of a dog team drawing a sled delivering mail to the far-flung communities of Canada.
Perrault (Omar Sy) and Francoise (Cara Gee) put Buck at the back of the pack pulling the sled. Buck is of course inept at first but eventually gets the hang of this arduous activity. Soon there is a conflict between the alpha Spitz and Buck over dominance. Spitz is mean and nasty to the other dogs, whereas Buck is nice to them.
When Buck and the lead dog eventually fight, it appears as if Buck has lost. But the pack turn on the alpha and Buck revives to defeat his nemesis, who flees. Perrault tries to put another dog in the lead of the sled, but the other dogs are not having any of this. So Buck now gets to pull the sled and with his speed and strength the mail sled makes record time.
However, Perrault has to sell the team when he gets word that the telegraph is replacing the mail. The team is purchased by some rich people who are clueless about the hazards of going into the wilderness. They overwork the team until Buck collapses. Here he is rescued by John Thornton (Harrison Ford), who has been narrating the film from the beginning.
Thornton lost a child to fever and he left his wife due to his depression. He and Buck eventually set out for the wilderness where he and Buck will find their destiny.
As far as veracity to the original book by Jack London, the film follows along fairly closely but is not as savage as the text. We do not see the deaths of sled dogs or the eventual demise of the rich people and the remaining dogs who perish as the ice beneath them collapses.
Nor do we see Thornton’s death at the hands of the Yeehat Indians and Buck’s subsequent revenge on them. Probably this is a little too politically and culturally fraught for today’s audiences.
Yet early in this picture, we start to see the mythologizing of Buck as a kind of uber-dog who is destined to rule wolves in the wild. From time to time, a mysterious wolf, which may or may not be a ghost, appears to inspire Buck. Thornton’s narration repeatedly indicates how Buck is transforming through his experiences in the wilderness to his destiny.
There is a parallel between the fact that Buck attains mythic status and the fact that he is not a real dog but a visual effect. Both have the touch of unreality in their storytelling.
The advantages of animating the dogs are two-fold. First, you can get them to perform on cue and don’t have to pay animal handlers or require supervision from the Humane Society.
Secondly, the technique opens up a whole new way to add character to the dogs, if not to the wolves. Each can have its own quirks and personality traits. I found this utterly captivating and charming. It also diminished my concern when the dogs were being mistreated knowing that they were not real.
As far as the acting, there is nothing in particular to note. The dogs and wolves are the central characters and they are very good, being that they can be completely manipulated by the filmmakers. Harrison Ford does a serviceable job but this is not his best role. I did appreciate the fact that he didn’t try to conceal his age, and his appearance fit right in with how I envisioned a Yukon miner to look.
The cinematography is breathtaking as you can imagine in portraying various wilderness scenes. The towns did not seem shabby enough, nor the inhabitants as ill-mannered and ill-dressed as they probably were in real life. There is a superb avalanche scene.
There are definitely some dark moments in the story. Besides the mistreatment of animals by evil people, the end of the film has some violent moments involving humans. Of course the final scenes, and this is no spoiler, amount to the final installation of Buck as King of the Wilderness, completing his hero’s journey.
So I think that young children will enjoy Buck as he is a likeable and persevering character. They might be scared when Buck is dog-napped and beaten. They also may not like the scenes when the sled team is being mistreated. The conflicts between humans at the end also may be of concern to parents.
But overall this film is an inspiring homage to a special dog, whether mythological or not. It is not the greatest story ever told, but it does provide a gateway to the novel for those who wish more. There is a chance to talk to children about the significance of different types of hero’s journeys and about mythology in general. I did not feel that the film lagged, even being familiar with the story.
Three out of five stars
Twentieth Century Studios’ “The Call of the Wild,” adapted from the novel by Jack London, vividly brings to the screen the story of Buck, a big-hearted dog whose blissful domestic life is turned upside down when he is suddenly uprooted from his California home and transplanted to the exotic wilds of the Canadian Yukon during the Gold Rush of the 1890s. As the newest rookie on a mail delivery dog sled team–and later its leader–Buck experiences the adventure of a lifetime, ultimately finding his true place in the world and becoming his own master.
Cast: Harrison Ford, Omar Sy, Dan Stevens, Karen Gillan, Bradley Whitford, Cara Gee, Michael Horse, Jean Louisa Kelly, Colin Woodell, Adam Fergus, Abraham Benrubi
Directed by: Chris Sanders
Screenplay by: Michael Green
Based on the novel by Jack London
Call of the Wild
It is not the greatest story ever told, but it does provide a gateway to the novel for those who wish more. There is a chance to talk to children about the significance of different types of hero’s journeys and about mythology in general. I did not feel that the film lagged, even being familiar with the story.