CALL OF THE WILD, directed by Chris Sanders (HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON), is nothing short of an unexpected triumph. Released in the dumping grounds of February with little fanfare, it defies all preconceived notions and delivers a wonderful adventure film for all ages. Beautifully realized with state of the art CGI, CALL takes the century old source material and updates it with grace for present day.
Buck is a massive St. Bernard/Scotch-Collie mix living a pampered life in California sometime in the late 1890’s. Far up north, the gold rush is well underway, and men and supplies are sent up daily. Kidnapped and sold to violent and ill-tempered new masters, Buck eventually finds himself alone in Yukon. With the unknown ahead, Buck must learn to be the master of his own destiny, and understand the call of his ancestors deep within.
All the animals in the film are computer generated. That, at first, was a cause for concern. I’ve seen multiple films with animals made entirely with CGI, and none have impressed so far. I was certain that CALL would fall victim to the same uncanny valley as others had — I’m so happy to be wrong!
Buck might not look 100% real, but he doesn’t need to either. The animation is so lifelike, so emotionally true, that the connection is sincere and powerful. The filmmakers have captured the very nature of dogs down to the smallest gesture, and it’s that technical wizardry which carries the film. This is solidified by a very game cast, each nailing the connection between human and animal effortlessly.
Harrison Ford leads as the gruff but goodhearted John Thornton, also lending his voice for the storybook narration. More alive than he’s been in years, Ford brings genuine pathos to the part that could have easily been phoned-in. Omar Sy and Cara Gee are both charming and heartbreaking as the postal runners who own Buck for a while. (Gee in particular brings the house down in a stirring farewell.) Even a bit part from the incomparable Bradley Whitford tells of a deeper friendship between master and pet. The villain (Dan Stevens) is serviceable, but an entirely forgettable one. Luckily the film foregoes the understandably dated depiction of Native Americans and settles for a prospector in their place.
Jack London’s book is highly episodic in nature, thanks to being published as a serial in 1903. That style translates mostly well on screen, even if some moments could have done with extra room to breathe. The introduction of the vain city slickers (led by Stevens) is too abrupt and its conclusion even moreso. There’s an implication of a fate left unseen, which I’d argue is worse for closure in this case. On the other hand, the adventures across the Klondike territory could be an entire story on its own. It certainly features some of the most exciting imagery in the film.
Told as a folktale, the film depicts Buck’s inner nature as a mythic colossal black wolf painted across the landscape. It’s a stunning image whenever on screen. The filmmakers gratefully eschew any dialog between (the highly anthropomorphized) animals, allowing for purely visual storytelling to take place. A struggle for dominance leads to a powerful nighttime showdown which further emphasizes the mythological quality of the tale.
A valid argument can be made that the film is emotionally cold and manipulative. That’s not inherently wrong — the film certainly has saccharin in its blood — but it would take a very hard person to not feel something towards such a sincere, glib-free story like this. As a dog owner all my life, I know my personal experiences colored every single scene of this film. I cried as the dogs hurt, and cheered when they triumphed. I marveled at the talent the digital artists utilized to bring a world gone by to life again. The timeless story swept me away for two hours, and never once felt like treading old ground.
If I saw this film when I was a kid, it would have left an everlasting mark on my soul. As an adult it reminded me how that age felt, and to instantly hug my dog when I got home.