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Review: The Call of the Wild

February 20, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Jack London’s classic 1903 novel The Call of the Wild has already been adapted for the screen multiple times over the past century, starting with a silent film version in 1923. This was followed by a 1935 adaptation starring Clark Gable and Loretta Young, which deviated greatly from the source material, as well as a 1972 version starring Charlton Heston, and the 1996 film The Call of the Wild: Dog of the Yukon starring Rutger Haur.

Now we have a new adaptation coming to us from Chris Sanders, who previously co-directed Lilo & Stitch for Disney and How to Train Your Dragon at DreamWorks, both films that have some thematic similarities with this one. The film was in production at 20th Century Fox prior to the Disney merger, and it’s being put out by them now through their newly rebranded 20th Century Studios subsidiary.

All of this is fitting because The Call of the Wild actually feels like a classic Disney production through and through, and it fits in quite nicely with their existing library of films. Right off the top, I should note that London’s original novel is one of my favourite books, which makes me somewhat biased in that no adaptation was likely ever going to entirely live up to it for me. But Sanders has done a decent job of shepherding the story to the screen once again, delivering an imperfect but enjoyable film that works as both a toned down but still mostly faithful adaptation and an appropriately grand big screen adventure.

Set in the 1890s, the story itself remains mostly the same, with a few expected changes. The main character is Buck, a large, rambunctious dog who is the family pet of Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford) and his wife (Jean Louisa Kelly) at their home in California. Buck enjoys the comforts of domesticity, but is also somewhat restless, and much too energetic to be kept cooped up in a house. When Buck is stolen and sold as a working dog during the Klondike Gold Rush, he ends up in the Yukon, and is put to work as a sled dog for a French-Canadian man named Perrault (Omar Sy), who delivers mail for the Canadian government, and his partner Françoise (Cara Gee), who in this version is a woman.

It’s on Perrault’s team that Buck starts to gain his strength and tap into his wild instincts, quickly climbing the ranks in the pack. Buck then gets sold to a rich, jealous prospector named Hal (Dan Stevens), who is setting out with his sister Mercedes (Karen Gillan) and her husband Charles (Colin Woodell) in search of gold. Along the way, Buck also keeps encountering a grizzled older man named John Thornton (Harrison Ford), who is heading out north to escape a family tragedy, and drinks to forget the pain. Buck and John bond throughout their respective journeys, finding ways to save each other. The friendship between them defines the second half of the story, and their scenes together are among the best in the film.

Ford’s character also serves as the film’s narrator, giving voice to Buck’s inner thoughts in a way that feels natural and stays true to how the dog’s thought process was presented in the book. It’s a clever narrative choice on the part of screenwriter Michael Green, whose previous writing credits include Logan and Blade Runner 2049, in that it allows the film to give voice to Buck without having the dog actually talk, which would have cheapened the integrity of London’s novel. Ford is excellent as John Thornton, a man whose growling intensity hides a sensitive underside. It’s a role that fits him like a glove, and he delivers some of his finest onscreen work in quite some time.

Buck himself is an entirely computer generated creation, and while the choice to use a CGI dog is commendable in terms of animal welfare so that a real animal wasn’t put in harm’s way during the story’s moments of danger, the animation itself isn’t quite there yet. Buck is a bit too anthropomorphic at times, and can fall into uncanny valley territory. Because we are so used to what a dog looks like, it’s somewhat harder to adjust to seeing an animated version of one interacting with real people in a live action world, as opposed to say the animated lions in The Lion King.

The “call” of London’s novel refers to the primal, animal instincts that exist within even the most domesticated of creatures, allowing them to return to their wild roots when removed from their domestic environments. The enduring brilliance of the book lies in the way that it explores how, under the right circumstances, a dog can learn to channel the spirits of his ancestor – the mighty wolf – in order to survive, something that is portrayed quite nicely in the film through a large black wolf spirit which often appears to Buck as an apparition to help guide him.

London’s novel also explores the natural hierarchies that form between canines. As Buck learns to fulfill his natural instincts to become pack leader, this leads to a rivalry between Buck and Perrault’s top sled dog Spitz, a husky who has never been challenged on his alpha position at the front of the pack. Their rivalry plays a role in the film, but it has been watered down slightly. While the film doesn’t entirely shy away from the darker elements of London’s novel, it also feels a bit tame and toothless at times, and the climax has been changed considerably to be both less violent and more culturally sensitive. This film version completely removes the “Yeehat Indians” from the story, albeit understandably, with the scenery-chewing Stevens instead serving as the main villain.

I do wish that the film had been a bit darker at times. But as I mentioned earlier, it would have been very hard for any film to truly live up to London’s timeless novel, and there is still plenty to enjoy about this version of The Call of the Wild, even if it doesn’t quite match the stature of the original book. Bolstered by some beautiful images that are captured in full widescreen splendour by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, and a particularly strong performance from Harrison Ford, this is a good old fashioned adventure movie that is satisfying and at times emotionally resonant to watch.

The Call of the Wild is now playing in theatres across Canada.

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