Adaptation of the Jack London novel features an impressive motion-capture mutt
THE CALL OF THE WILD (Chris Sanders). Opens Friday (February 21). 105 minutes. See listing. Rating: NN
There’s been a litter of canine movies lately like A Dog’s Purpose, Dog Days, A Dog’s Journey, A Dog’s Way Home and more. They’re all cloying, manipulative and syrupy, which tempts me to praise Chris Sanders’s The Call Of The Wild for being slightly less so.
What’s more commendable about The Call Of The Wild is that it’s the first among these recent movies to make the argument that a dog’s purpose and value is their role in nature, not their obedience or loyalty to a human master.
Based on the 1903 Jack London novel that has already been adapted with Charlton Heston and Clark Gable, The Call Of The Wild is about a large St. Bernard/Scotch Shepherd mix called Buck, who is stolen from his California domestic life and sold up north to work as a sled dog during the gold rush. This being a child-friendly adventure, the graver aspects to his predicament – i.e., animal abuse and dogfighting – are softened.
Buck starts off working for a lovely French-Canadian Black man and Indigenous woman (Omar Sy and Canada’s Cara Gee) who don’t have any issues with racism while transporting mail from Yukon to Skagway – the latest example of Hollywood being inclusive without stakes. Buck butts heads with their lead dog, a vicious husky, and ends up in crueller hands (Dan Stevens) before finding a kindred spirit in Harrison Ford’s John Thornton.
Ford’s John sees in Buck a companion for an adventure and an independent soul that belongs in the wild, forgoing the whole master and pet dynamic in ways that are both rare and admirable. If anything, John often comes off as Buck’s pet.
In keeping with that ideology, the production didn’t make a dog actor jump through hoops or wild rapids. Debates over animal labour on movie sets got heated after a notorious and questionably edited video leak from A Dog’s Purpose showing what appeared to be a dog in distress. The Call Of The Wild avoids those issues by making Buck and his canine company CGI creations.
While Buck won’t be mistaken for the real thing, he’s convincing enough. Authenticity isn’t a hallmark of any of these canine movies. And with actor Terry Notary playing Buck through motion capture, there’s room for more (“aww, how cute”) expressions from the dog as well as more physical gags.
My kids were rolling around and begging for more.