The Call of the Wild was directed by Chris Sanders from a script by Michael Green, and is the fourth cinematic adaptation of the iconic adventure novel by author Jack London. It stars Terry Notary in a motion capture performance as Buck, an almost unnaturally large and kindhearted dog from the more affluent sector of the southern United States, who suddenly finds himself on the adventure of a lifetime after being kidnapped from his home and transported up north during the great Klondike gold rush of the late 1890’s. Picked up soon after by Perrault (Omar Sy), a postal service delivery worker, Buck begins to earn his place on a team of sled dogs meant to transport mail across the vast reaches of Yukon, even going so far as to eventually become their fearless leader. But something still pulls at Buck, beckoning him to venture further outside of the world he knows, and as Buck begins to trust his instincts, they begin pull him in a few different directions, allowing him to shed the comforts of civilization. Most significantly, they pull him in the direction of one John Thorton (Harrison Ford), a recluse living in the Yukon, carrying a deep pain he hopes to bury there. Upon meeting Buck, however, Thorton decides that maybe he has enough room left in his heart for one more grand adventure, and thus he and Buck set out to answer the call that beckons them so desperately. As they encounter new dangers, and traverse unknown reaches, they will both learn to care for each other, and perhaps they will both also learn what it means to truly live as their own masters once again. This movie also stars Cara Gee, Dan Stevens, Bradley Whitford, Karen Gillan, and Colin Woodell.
This movie came into theaters in early March (oh, how long it’s been) with quite a large “responsibility” of sorts regarding the fate of its studio. Disney had just purchased Fox not long before, and this was to be the first major release under the banner of 20th Century Studios, the newly rebranded version of the former 20th Century Fox. Moreover, Fox’s tentpole films had not been doing particularly well the year before, and their biggest release (the X-Men series closer, Dark Phoenix) ended up a major disappointment both critically and commercially. Fox would have some modest success in November with Ford v Ferrari (the last major film to be released under the “Fox” banner), but they were nonetheless struggling. There was a lot riding on this film, both as a financial course correction, and as quality assurance that 20th Century Studios could, in fact, succeed. Luckily, it seems they did. Now, that’s not to say the film is perfect, or even particularly groundbreaking in terms of narrative, scope, or yes, its VFX; however, if you can allow yourself to be taken in by the story being offered to you, you may find a little adventurous spirit within yourself as well.
The trailer for this most recent adaptation of The Call of the Wild didn’t quite do service to the kind of movie it actually turned out to be. Of course, there were many instances watching the trailer that the motion capture performance aspect of Buck’s character got too much in the way of actually being able to get invested in what it was actually trying to sell me on. The movements looked incredibly unnatural and the visual effects themselves look as if they were only halfway complete. However, as the film (which I was able to watch in an entirely empty XD theater) approached the ten minute mark (or something close to it), I began to become more comfortable with how everything looked. The VFX themselves became much less bothersome after a while, and it became clear that even though many of the smaller movements within the motion capture performance looked somewhat unnatural, a movie such as this, told in the way this one is, couldn’t really exist or put across everything it was meant to say if the production had trained an actual dog to do everything Buck is meant to do in this movie. There are certain moments where (to put it lightly) putting an actual dog through the situations Buck goes through in this movie could have meant many animal rights groups would descend like vultures on the production, but more importantly in terms of the film’s narrative and thematic drive, training a real dog would mean losing out on the emotional journey the audience experiences through Buck’s eyes, which carry a lot of the expressiveness present throughout the movie.
Much of that expressiveness, too, comes courtesy of Buck’s interactions with Omar Sy and Harrison Ford. During the segments wherein Buck and Thorton embark on their titularly-inspired adventure across the Yukon, as Buck is learning to shed that coat of comfort that comes with being part of civilization, much is communicated between Ford and Notary that may otherwise have been lost with a real dog in Notary’s place. The main bulk of their story together doesn’t actually come into the film for quite some time (especially given the fact that Ford has first billing in the movie), but when it does, that’s when the movie really starts to shine the most.
Ford is really good here too; it’s not a particularly ground-breaking role, or even one that will be remembered as one of his most iconic characters, but Ford is exactly the kind of actor you want playing this kind of role at this point in his career, and you can tell during the course of the film that he actually is connecting with the material in some meta-like way. And he’s not the only performer who gets to shine here too. Omar Sy is actually in this movie quite a bit more than one might expect, taking up approximately 80% of the first act and around 20% of the second, and turns in suitably good work, to the point where one begins to wonder why he’s not a larger presence in the American film industry. Really, it isn’t until about halfway through the movie that we begin to see Harrison Ford’s character actually interact with Buck in much of a meaningful way. Before that, there are some cursory glances and maybe one or two smaller “conversations,” but nothing much in the way of substance.
Apart from the visual effects in Notary’s motion capture performance, as well, the film does have a certain beauty to it peppered into the scenes wherein Buck and Thorton are exploring nature between the Yukon and the Arctic Circle. Some of it looks like green screen on occasion, but somehow director Chris Sanders and DP Janusz Kaminski manage to make it look compelling anyway, with certain wide shots that one can’t help but admire, no matter how convincing they look. It’s certainly a beautiful-looking movie in more spots than one might expect, which given the trailer’s penchant for not looking super great, feels refreshing.
Now, the film is far from perfect, and in fact has a great number of small flaws that keep it from being as great as it could have been, even with the understandably compromised motion capture; for one, the film peppers in some small villains here and there in the form of overeager gold rush enthusiasts (played by Dan Stevens and Karen Gillan), but these characters just don’t seem to have much reason for being in the movie, and their presence does little to nothing in terms of adding weight to the events of the narrative being told here. I’m sure they hold a much more significant presence in the book itself, but here, they just feel distracting. So much of the narrative is built around Buck and Thorton’s journey in growing into nature and conquering the obstacles of the natural world that throwing two human characters in there just seems unnecessary. As well, there’s an early rivalry with one of the other sled dogs on the team in which Buck finds himself during the first act of the film, and it doesn’t really come back around in much a meaningful way…that I can remember, anyway; it’s been a while.
The Call of the Wild is far from a perfect adventure movie, but it is one of the more pleasant “man becomes one with his natural instincts” types to come out of the genre in quite some time. While its VFX and narrative could have used a little more focus, they actually aren’t quite as bothersome as the trailer would have you believe. Buck is a genuinely compelling character, and even gives you a few laughs throughout the movie, despite the motion capture movements not quite being natural enough to look as if an actual dog is on screen. Harrison Ford and Omar Sy turn in really solid performances for the type of movie this is, Sanders manages to find a nice adventurous spirit and appreciation for the wild to pepper into the film’s thematic core, and you could do worse for meaningful family viewing nowadays. At the very least, it’s just a nice movie to have seen at the end of the day.
I’m giving “The Call of the Wild” a 7.2/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.