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Call of the Wild, The (2020)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/27/20 00:19:38

"A cast this good deserves real dogs."
3 stars (Just Average)

It's a good thing that the preview for the latest adaptation of "The Call of the Wild" played before seemingly every movie to hit theaters in the last couple of months, if only to give potential viewers a head start on wrestling with the conflicting reactions the film seems designed to create: It's a handsome, family-oriented adventure film that feels almost like a throwback except for one modern element - the animal characters being realized with digital animation - that can't help but stick out like a sore thumb. So much of the film works, but there's a big piece smack in the middle that one's brain rejects.

That would be Buck, a big mixed-breed dog that, when he's introduced in San Francisco, is the spoiled pet of an influential judge (Bradley Whitford) and his wife (Jean Louisa Kelly). A night banished to the porch for misbehavior makes him easy prey for those looking to cash in on the need for sled dogs in Alaska. There he is purchased by Perrault (Omary Sy) and Fran├žoise (Cara Gee), a couple delivering mail between Skagway and Dawson, though Buck's soft-hearted nature puts him in conflict with Spitz, the husky that leads the sled team. Nothing lasts forever, though, and eventually Buck will have other masters - Hal (Dan Stevens), who has invested enough in his quest for gold to become desperate, and John Thornton (Harrison Ford), a man looking to be alone on the edge of the world.

They're a central element in most of the film, but I can't say I ever managed to completely accept the digital dogs, though I am not one to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to digital effects. It's not that the effects work is badly done at all - for completely-digital versions of creatures people see regularly, the dogs and other animals in this movie look pretty good when they are in action doing dog-like things. And that's good - for many sequences in this movie, shooting it with actual dogs would involve them being put in danger or otherwise abused, so good effects work is crucial. It's the too-human expressions on Buck's face and bits of exaggerated body language courtesy of motion-capture performer Terry Notary that cause trouble; for all that a viewer can now "read" Buck better, it comes with a nagging thought in the back of one's head that dogs don't do that. On top of that, Buck being animated probably undercuts what the story is doing: If, as in Jack London's original novel, the story is about Buck's animal nature asserting itself - and the narration underlines that as a theme - it's counterproductive for Buck to communicate like a human. He needs to be a dog, whether pet, working animal, or something near-feral, and at no point does he come across as one.

There's much to appreciate otherwise, though. It's the type of adventure movie made with families in mind that theaters and Saturday afternoons with lousy weather could use more of; it never winks at the audience or does anything to suggest that anything involved is less than sincere. Whatever combination of fantastic cinematography, terrific locations, and visual effects is used to give the audience the unexplored (by Europeans) Alaska of 150 years ago is fantastic, especially when director Chris Sanders and company set the scene with clean white snow and a sky full of either stars or aurora borealis (maybe less so during a frantic dash through a cave). It's a thrilling boy's adventure tale that has life-and-death stakes but few potentially-traumatizing scenes; it may lose some of the heavier elements of London's book, but is just wonderfully outdoorsy and exciting.

The human cast is kind of great, giving the film just what it needs without flashy attempts to impress. Omar Sy is here to put smiles on faces with Perrault's genuine fondness for his dogs and earnest belief that his job is important, with Cara Gee serving as a great foil. Dan Stevens is kind of perfect as a charismatic but petty antagonist (though there is not nearly enough Karen Gillan to go with him), while Bradley Whitford and Jean Louisa Kelly establish where Buck is coming from, though Sanders makes sure that they don't quite become so important that the story is a letdown if it doesn't circle back.

And then there is Harrison Ford, who brings the importance of a movie star and the reliability of a character actor when he appears on-screen from the start, and knows how to deploy that gruff-but-decent persona perfectly, whether crawling into a bottle, displaying some hard-won wisdom, or re-opening himself to joy. He may just be doing exactly what you'd expect, but the part fits him like a glove and reminds you what a crying shame it is that they really weren't making Westerns for much of his career.

Could the filmmakers have made this with real dogs, building scenes so that the fact that one doesn't really know what's in a dog's head makes the core of London's story work better? Probably, though one might have had to rein the humans in to match; it's a tricky alchemy. As it is, you can bring kids to this "Call of the Wild" and have them see a pretty good movie. Not the definitive one, and someone's going to find the dog characters off, but it's got enough good parts for a matinee at least.

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