REVIEW: The Call of the Wild (2020)

Buck is a St Bernard-Scotch Collie cross living an easy life in 1890s Santa Clara. When he is kidnapped and illegally sold, he finds himself the property of Yukon freight haulers – and on an adventure into the northern American wilderness. On his journey he keeps crossing paths with the solitary man John Thornton (Harrison Ford).

The Call of the Wild, Jack London’s 1903 novel about a dog’s adventures in the Yukon, has already been adapted to the screen five times. This, the first 21st century adaptation, comes from animation director Chris Sanders (Lilo & Stitch, How to Train Your Dragon) and marks his first time working with a live-action cast. The film itself is packed with computer animation: many of the backgrounds are digitally created, as well as all of the animal characters including the protagonist Buck. It is, in effect, less of a live-action feature and more of an animated film with live actors incorporated into it.

The visual difference is jarring at first. Everything seems a little too scenic and pretty, too perfectly composed to smoothly match with the actors. Once the film settles in and the narrative pushes forth, it does gradually become easier to adjust – although the high level of artificiality never quite goes away. The various animal characters, particularly both Buck and a pack of sled dogs with whom he works during the film’s opening act, are the hardest to accept. They are trapped between two aesthetics, not realistic enough to climb out of the ‘uncanny valley’ but not exaggerated enough to fully work as cartoon characters. It is an interesting experiment, but feels in the end to only be a partially successful one. Certainly it is easier to digest as the film goes on.

The narrative feels deeply old-fashioned, as befits an adaptation of a century-old novel, and takes an episodic route from kidnap to pulling a mail run and beyond. An attempt has been made to shape a three-act narrative out of the book that broadly works, albeit with a somewhat rushed climax. One element that works particularly well is Buck’s semi-regular visions of a wolf-like ancestor, which drives him on at key crisis points during the story. The action set pieces, including escaping the breaking ice on a lake and avoiding an avalanche, are wonderfully staged and paced. This is not a surprise considering Sanders’ visual expertise on the likes of How to Train Your Dragon. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski works with a surprisingly colourful palette here, considering the milky and dour work he usually creates when working with his regular director Steven Spielberg.

There are some solid and engaging performances in the film’s cast, particularly Omar Sy and Cara Gee as a pair of mail runners, but ultimately the film rests in the hands of Harrison Ford. It is in many ways the perfect role for him: solitary, gruff, and pent-up, he spends the movie regretting his dead son and failed marriage while using his trademark gravelly voice to express admiration of and irritation with the dog that he keeps meeting. Ford has consistently been one of the USA’s most critically under-rated actors. His narration throughout the film – Buck is thankfully not quite so cartoonish as to have a voice of his own – ties the various set pieces together, and helps to unify it as an overall story.

It is striking how a movie that started life as a 20th Century Fox production, but sees release as the first production for Disney subsidiary 20th Century Studios, feels so much like an old-fashioned Walt Disney Pictures film. These kinds of wholesome adventure stories rarely see the inside of movie theatres any more, and while The Call of the Wild is somewhat flawed and uneven it feels deeply refreshing and enjoyable at the same time. It is a faulty work, but at the same time a properly enjoyable family film. If you have children and are looking for a night out at the movies, you could do a lot worse.

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