Synopsis – A sled dog struggles for survival in the wilds of the Yukon.
My Take – Nearly every year sees the release of a family-friendly dog film which follows an adorable pooch on a spirited journey looking for self-fulfillment and its meaning in the world. In the last few years we’ve had efforts as ‘A Dog’s Purpose’, its sequel ‘A Dog’s Journey’ and ‘A Dog’s Way Home’, by the same author. Last year itself, saw the release of the delightful ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’, along with some atrocious features like ‘Show Dogs’, and ‘Patrick’.
The problem with this genre of films, especially considering that there are so many, is that it’s hard to not approach them with a hint of cynicism, particularly if you’ve seen most of them, or unless you own a dog and get the exact amount of feels the makers are aiming at.
Thankfully, this seventh film adaptation of Jack London’s 1903 novel, directed by Chris Sanders (How to Train Your Dragon, Lilo & Stitch), that was originally made for 20th Century Fox, and is now being released by Disney following their acquisition of Fox, under the banner 20th Century Studios, dials up the wholesomeness without feeling completely overbearing.
What makes this adaption stand out from its predecessors is that its uses a computer-generated dog to give a wide range of emotional responses without straying too far from the way dogs actually behave. Yes, while there certainly isn’t anything new to be found here, and is not without its tonal shortfalls like patchy visuals, it is still a fairly entertaining and surprisingly emotional film. In many ways it is a perfect vehicle for the Disney brand as it appeals to families whose younger kids are ready for adventure-lite. However, older kids and adults (like myself) might also enjoy it enough, by the end.
Set in the 1890s, the story follows Buck, a St. Bernard/Scotch Collie dog, lived a life of luxury as the spoilt pet of Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford) on an estate in California. That is until, due to his abnormal size, one night, Buck is stolen and brought to Alaska, where sled dogs have become an important need in the boom towns created by the Yukon Gold Rush. Here, Buck is picked up by Perrault (Omar Sy) and his partner Françoise (Cara Gee) to become a part of their motley group of dogs, who deliver mail on a sled from town to town, despite the harsh conditions of the mountains.
While Buck often finds himself in a confused state regarding his role, he soon learns the tricks of his new trade, despite finding himself challenged by the leader of the pack. Unfortunately, when the mail route is discontinued, the dog team is sold to Hal (Dan Stevens), a crooked trader and his wife, Mercedes (Karen Gillan), who are determined to get to gold country, even if it means crossing dangerously thin ice with the dogs and their heavily packed sled.
Thankfully, Buck is rescued from this dire situation by John Thornton (Harrison Ford), who has come to the wilderness to escape the pain of a family tragedy and quickly forms a deep bond with him. John talks to Buck as if he were his only friend, and Buck intuits what John needs. Together they embark on an adventure that takes them far away from civilization where both will find a way to an authentic life.
Unsurprisingly, the film grows on you, getting stronger throughout its run-time. It is mostly a sanitized family film that perfectly built for the Disney banner. Here, director Chris Sanders makes the most of the challenges and delights of the wilderness setting. We root for John and Buck as they square off against enemies and setbacks, and we learn from them what is really important.
John’s character is provided a more textured approach to his emotions. Yes, he has suffered, and this has led him to the isolated wilderness of the Yukon, but he is still a decent human being. This is evident not only in how he treats Buck, but also how he interacts with those in town, the indigenous people of the land, and even in how he offers advice to Hal when he and his companions arrive. In one scene, Thornton throws large chunks of gold away, keeping only the few pieces to buy groceries in the future; he discovers he really doesn’t need much to be content.
And Buck, like most dogs a master of living in the moment, is faithful to those who care for him and open to his destiny and his true home. Despite the lackluster CGI and the off-putting fact that the dog is portrayed with a motion capture performance from Terry Notary, a man acting on all fours in place of a real dog, this canine character actually worked surprisingly well.
Though he never speaks a word, because he’s a dog, you can’t help but be oddly aware of what he was thinking and feeling. This CGI pooch was strangely great at emoting and connecting with the audience. Throughout all of his adventures, you can’t help but root for Buck to overcome every obstacle he faces, whether that be the unforgiving nature of the Yukon or an angry man with a bat.
The film’s attempt at realism forces the film in some of its grittiest moments, the likes including abuse directed at animals, to feel more distressing than it does anything emotive. This feat is all the more bewildering considering first-time live-action director Chris Sanders’ experience, with the celebrated writer having worked on many of celebrated family films. And character wise, Hal is the weakest part of the larger story as he is underdeveloped as a character. He is simply angry to start, angry throughout, and it leads him to hunt down Buck and John Thornton, once they go off on their adventure, so that he can try to do bad things in anger. The reason and motivation for any of this is not mentioned at all, not even a hint of why he started off that way.
Performance wise, Harrison Ford provides a fresh enough take on his grumpy bear persona, and the story works in the personal loss he has suffered that has led him to this demeanor. Ford, who detours from his usual on-screen grit, delivers what is undoubtedly the best part of the film; achieving with his performance a charming connection with Buck that provides a much-needed warmth to the film.
Bradley Whitford appears in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-his performance role, while Omar Sy and Cara Gee bring a wholesome and warm attitude to their characters. Karen Gillan, who wasn’t really given anything to do, shined whenever she was on-screen, and Dan Stevens absolutely hams in his portrayal of a villainous money-crazed prospector. On the whole, ‘The Call of the Wild’ is a familiar but heartwarming adventure that’s surprisingly funny and emotional.
Directed – Chris Sanders
Rated – PG
Run Time – 100 minutes