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Friday, February 21, 2020

The Call of the Wild

This latest in a long line of film adaptations of Jack London's 1903 adventure novel, The Call of the Wild, tries to be a mix of the old and the new.  With the old, we get a true, rugged action melodrama complete with people being trapped under icy rivers, burning cabins, and a mustache-twirling villain with a lust for gold.  Sure, you've seen that kind of stuff tons of times, but there's something quaint and charming about seeing them in a modern day family movie.  This is an appropriately old fashioned adventure story that can be a lot of fun.

It's the "new" elements that the movie throws at us that got in the way of my total enjoyment.  Its lead canine character, a St. Bernard/Scottish Collie mix named Buck, is entirely digital and has been created by special effects that look expensive, but are not 100% convincing.  Whenever we see the CG dog interacting with its human co-star, Harrison Ford playing the gruff and hard-drinking John Thornton, something looks just a little bit off.  In the long history of dog movies, they have never failed to convince me of the bond that can grow between canine and human.  But this movie comes up short, because the dog was never there on the set in the first place.  Oh, Ford does the best he can with the conditions he's been given.  He's clearly acting his heart out.  It's just kind of bizarre to see him acting his heart out to a dog who's not really there.

To be fair, I can understand why a CG dog was needed for some of the more difficult scenes in the movie.  But, why did he have to be completely digital for the entire film?  At the very least, the dog does not talk or narrate the events with a celebrity voice over.  Thank goodness for small favors.  Still, it seems like kind of a cop out that they give us a dog who sometimes doesn't seem to occupy the same space as his human co-stars.  It took me out of the movie more than once, and hinders what would otherwise be a perfectly serviceable adventure for kids.  In making his live action feature directing debut, former animator Chris Sanders (He made Disney's Lilo and Stitch, and How to Train Your Dragon for Dreamworks.) just seems to have a hard time with mixing the old fashioned elements to the new technology heavy moments.

The film chronicles Buck's journey from a pampered and spoiled pet, all the way to a dog who discovers his true roots and returns to nature.  He begins the story as the beloved dog of a wealthy judge (Bradley Whitford), but this happy existence does not last long, as he is promptly stolen by a shady individual when he is left outside the house at night.  He is sold and shipped off to Alaska, where he discovers snow for the first time (he doesn't know what to make of it), and eventually joins a sled dog team that delivers mail across the Yukon.  He quickly becomes a pro at the job thanks to the guidance of a human couple played by Omar Sy and Cara Gee.  But just when he's getting the hang of things and becomes the head of the sled dog pack, the postal service shuts down the dog sled delivery service.

Buck once again finds himself without a home, but not for long, as he is picked up by the greedy and pompous Hal (Dan Stevens), who wants to use the dog to lead him to an area where gold has been discovered.  Hal is an abusive and cruel master, but fortunately, old John Thornton comes along and saves Buck from having to serve the despicable man.  John has had a couple run-ins with Buck off and on during the story, and can tell that the dog needs a second chance.  He takes Buck back to his cabin in the woods, where he spends the days drinking a lot and mourning over the son he lost years ago.  Somehow, Buck is able to sense that his master has a drinking problem, and starts stealing his bottles and hiding them.  That's some dog.  Buck can even join in a little when John is playing the harmonica late at night, and seems to understand English.  I got the sense that if the movie had gone on any longer, we'd get a scene where Buck would help John do his taxes.

Okay, so you need a large suspension of disbelief in order to enjoy The Call of the Wild.  I was okay with that for the most part, as the movie does have some enjoyable moments.  We have the usual great, gruff performance from Harrison Ford, who is able to convincingly sell that he's sharing the screen with a faithful dog, even though we know he isn't.  We also have an appropriately epic cinematic scope provided by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, which is completely convincing, and much more convincing than the CG work done to create the various dogs, wolves, bears and rabbits that populate the film.  When it's just Ford and the CG dog, there are some good moments.  But when we get a lot of animals in a single scene, or Buck interacting with a digital wolf who serves as his Spirit Animal, it kind of looks like the same kind of technical wizardry run amok that sunk last summer's pointless remake of The Lion King

It goes without saying that this is a much better film than that was.  Despite the distracting special effects, this movie does manage to have a sense of excitement and warmth to it.  I just couldn't help but think that using real animals for a number of scenes where digital ones weren't needed would have made this an even better movie.  I am recommending The Call of the Wild, because it does work on a basic level, and the kids are sure to find it thrilling.  There are just some heartfelt moments that a computer can't replace, no matter how photo realistic the illusions it creatures can appear.

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