To many, “The Call of the Wild” is just another one of those “gung-ho America” books that was required during middle school, like “Little House on the Prairie” or “Hatchet.” The true legacy of the classic novel is likely lost on many growing up today, so it makes sense to change it some to fit the expectations of modern-day audiences. And while this version…isn’t awful, it doesn’t nearly live up to the source material.
Harrison Ford (“Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) is likely the sole reason a lot of people unfamiliar with the novel will be seeing this film. His gruff attitude with a heart of gold helps his performance as John Thorton emerge as one of few inarguably good things about this adaptation. His smile beams through his beard and the numerous moments involving him shouting with pure elation at finding gold or a giant fish make it hard not to smile.
However, he’s only in the second half of the film, and his co-star for that second half is Buck, the completely CGI dog, with Terry Notary (“Avengers: Infinity War,” “Kong Skull Island”) providing the movements via CGI. Without even getting into the quality of the CGI, Buck represents a humongous problem with the film. Every vista, animal, beautiful mountain, etc. is completely computer generated. It robs the film from feeling like the awe-inspiring visual feast that the previous adaptations so supremely nailed. It doesn’t matter how good the CGI is, when Ford looks over a sweeping vista with Buck by his side, it looks just off enough to spoil the entire affair.
It wouldn’t have worked as well even if it was good CGI, and it definitely isn’t. While some moments and animals look better than others, a majority of the time the environments are so bright and pristine, they end up looking like satirical versions of the land their mean to emulate. They just look too pretty.
Buck meanwhile looks like an early PlayStation 3 game. He’s just simply too cartoony looking, practically rolling his eyes at the camera like he’s in “The Office” half the time. The decision to make him a lovable oaf who messes up half the time also undercuts some incredibly serious moments. It’s hard to think that there’s any real danger to a sled dog team when half the time Buck is tripping over his own feet and being comically dragged behind the rest of the team.
Sure, he is cute, but it’s hard not to watch his lower effort CGI body prance around and not think of the most recent “Planet of the Apes” trilogy. Those films also utilized motion capture and maintained a startling level of realism that, had it not been achieved, would have made the films collapse.
Early on in this film, Buck is captured and confronted with a dog seller with a nasty club. Buck tries to escape and is hit fairly hard on the head with that club. The main, adorable dog of this film was hit with a club by a clearly antagonistic character. And the audience was silent. Not whimpers from the kids in the crowd or gasps or crying, nothing.
Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how good the effects are if it sells the emotion and characters. The ones used here just don’t. Director Chris Sanders (“Lilo & Stitch,” “How to Train Your Dragon”) and screenwriter Michael Green (“Logan,” “Blade Runner 2049”) have both worked on effects heavy movies before that focus on the odd couple pairing shown here with Buck and Ford. Yet the emotion here is boiled down to cartoony levels of absurdism. Ford doesn’t even appear until the second half of the film, and before then it’s a bizarre mixture of intense dog fights and weird physical comedy via mail delivery.
Even an intense moment involving a frozen river is undercut as it ends on an elaborate joke. When Ford shows up, it doesn’t immediately go away. There are multiple moments where guns are pulled, and characters are in life or death peril and yet there’s nothing to feel. A supposedly threatening antagonist is laughably acted by Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey,” “Beauty and the Beast (2017)”) and by the time his arc is introduced for the climatic finale of this calm nature novel, all bets are out the window.
Despite having a lot of visual problems, most of the story issues can be forgiven if you just want a simple movie that looks nice and you’ll forget about in a week. Ford is reliably charming here, and the film is over in just under 100 minutes. For those looking for an adaptation that captures the harsh reality of the novel, give it a pass. This is a film for those just looking for some over-glossed escapism. It isn't bad, just bland and passable. 2.5/5