Originally published as a serialized adventure in “The Saturday Evening Post,” Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild” has been seen as a classic American story of adventure since 1903.
The story’s cinematic qualities have led to it being adapted for the big screen several times, and the novel was even the basis for a ‘70s Snoopy special. This year, 20th Century Studios (formerly 20th Century Fox) will release their latest adaptation of this tale of survival in the Yukon, starring Harrison Ford.
Ultimately, this most recent version of “The Call of the Wild” is an uneven but enjoyable tale of adventure in the Yukon during the gold rush era. The movie feels a lot like two separate films that have been combined into one. The first of these is the tale of Buck the dog being dognapped from his cushy life in California and learning how to survive while pulling a mail sled through the tundra alongside a dog team, and the second is the story of him and John Thornton (Ford) going on the “adventure of a lifetime” through the Yukon in search of what lies off the map.
The first is the more interesting of the two stories presented in this film because of the way it plays to the strengths of director Chris Sander’s experiences in animation. Sanders, who has directed “Lilo and Stitch,” “How to Train your Dragon,” and “The Croods,” has a real gift for imbibing non-human characters with a sense of emotion and character. His efforts here allow the character of Buck, who is a completely computer-generated creation, to feel more human. The scenes during the first act of this film, where Buck learns the ropes of being a sled dog and earns the trust of his team feel like they could have been translated from a Disney animated classic that has never existed.
Speaking of the digital characters in this film, while they are technologically impressive, ultimately they really only work when they are surrounded by other CG creations. In particular, there are times where Buck is in the same scene with actual animals and it immediately feels off. Think of it as an “uncanny valley” for dogs.
The second half of this film, unfortunately, loses a lot of steam once Buck is removed from his pack. Ford sleepwalks through most of his scenes and never really gels with the digital character that he’s asked to play off of. The best aspect of this latter part of the film is Dan Steven’s (“Legion,” “Beauty and the Beast” ) turn as Hal, a spoiled rich man who comes to the Yukon in search of a mythical river of gold. Stevens has so much fun with his role as a mustache-twirling villain that I personally wish he would have gotten a few more scenes.
Throughout my viewing of this film, I found myself thinking back to the early ‘90s “dog movie” boom, the one where we got such films at “Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey,” “Air Bud,” and “Beethoven.” “The Call of the Wild” fits into that pantheon of movies and should prove to be an enjoyable film for families or dog lovers in general.
Check out the trailer below, and catch the film in theaters on Feb. 21: