Published Feb 20, 2020Based on the 1903 novel of the same name by Jack London, The Call of the Wild follows the story of a CGI St. Bernard/Collie mix named Buck, a big dog in a huge world. He's the archetypical Disney character: dorky, loveable, altruistic, extraordinary but humble — he has all the makings of an infallible protagonist. Because of Buck, the film is set up to succeed right out of the gate — unfortunately, it fails to live up to its potential, because of some pretty drastic missteps.
The Call of the Wild contains two distinct stories: the first is of a dog kidnapped from his southern home and forced into slave labour in the Arctic, later developing Stockholm syndrome with his adoptive masters, who literally leave one of their dogs to die in the wild because he was late for work. The second is the story of a judgemental ex-sled-dog enforcing his puritanical views on a scotch-drinking old man in mourning. These two plotlines battle for prominence for a sizeable chunk of the movie. Ultimately, the latter wins out, but only after you've already gotten three-quarters of the way through the film.
The animals in The Call of the Wild can't talk — thank goodness. But the film does manage to enter into uncanny valley territory with its high-definition CGI canines and augmented landscapes. Granted, the film is aimed at children — a demographic of society best known for their characteristically flexible suspension of disbelief. But something tells me even a juvenile eye wouldn't mistake this animation as wholly realistic. There's something creepy about Buck's too-human expressions and the human characters' interactions with him that puts you at unease. The way he's presented makes it equally believable that he's actually just an anime freak in a fur suit. It's at once goofy and horrifying.
The film would have been better off to commit to its realism or resign itself completely to animation — real dogs just don't exhibit determination through facial expressions, no matter how spiritual your relationship is with them. Real dogs don't play the harmonica either! And they certainly don't pass judgement on their master for having one goddamn drink of whiskey.
Because of the nature of telling a story from the perspective of a dog, there's very little dialogue, spare some wild monologuing from Omar Sy's character and Harrison Ford's inexplicably informed narration. Nonetheless, Ford (playing John Thorton) and Sy do an especially stellar job of navigating the movie's unfocused screenplay in these moments. Aside from one moment when Françoise (Cara Gee) gives a motivational speech to a literal dog, telling him that his master "believes" in him, these few flesh-and-blood characters deliver pretty solid performances.
With all of that said, the set design is absolutely stellar. From its southern beginnings to its night-time sled trail scenes cast in the glow of mystical Northern Lights and later, John Thornton's eclectic down-trodden Yukon shack, the film is admittedly stunning. In its picturesque qualities, The Call of the Wild has realistic moments of breathtaking wonder that will make you (and probably some kids) want to become an old-timey Alaskan prospector. Paired with a gorgeous score, the movie is bound to make some audience members feel serious feelings. For these reasons, it's definitely worth a watch. Just brace yourself for some corny eye-roll inducing moments before you take in the splendorous eye candy.
(Twentieth Century Studios)