A film review by Craig J. Koban March 5, 2020

THE CALL OF THE WILD jj
   

2020, PG, 100 mins.

 

Harrison Ford as John Thornton  /  Dan Stevens as Hal  /  Colin Woodell as Charles  /  Karen Gillan as Mercedes  /  Omar Sy as Perreault  /  Raven Scott as Pastry Chef  /  Wes Brown as Mountie

Directed by Chris Sanders  /  Written by Michael Green, adapting Jack London's book

 

 

 

 

Harrison Ford.  

God love 'em.  

The man's an icon of the silver screen that hardly needs any introduction whatsoever, and he's played some of the most legendary and memorable heroes of the medium.  His latest film is THE CALL OF THE WILD, which is, of course, based on the 1903 short Jack London wilderness adventure novel of the same name that's been adapted for film multiple times over, with perhaps the two most well known being the 1935 Clark Gable and 1972 Charlton Heston starring iterations respectively.  The best thing I will say about this latest CALL OF THE WILD is that Ford gives the single best near movie saving performance playing opposite of a 100 per cent CGI dog in the history of movies.   

The rest of the movie built around Ford?  Mostly, a big meh. 

One of the biggest creative distractions that I just couldn't wrap my head around was the choice to portray the character of Buck - a canine that goes on quite the cross country adventure during the peak of the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush - utilizing visual effects.  Buck is never once played by a real dog here.  He has personality and is indeed likeable, yes, and the artisans utilized here - that, no doubt, spent thousands of hours grinding away in front of computer screens - to bring Buck to artificial life should be partially commended.  To be fair, there are some static shots of this loveable pooch that - for fleeting seconds - look absolutely photo real.  But there are too many other instances when Buck moves, reacts, and uses body language that are anything but real, so much so that I was subconsciously telling myself throughout THE CALL OF THE WILD that he's...just...phonier than a three dollar bill.  Perhaps this is what makes Ford's work so thanklessly good here.  He has made a career being in films loaded with VFX and all things fake, and when he reacts to this odd looking creation he has a dramatic weight and gravitas.  Having said that, I was left wondering just how good THE CALL OF THE WILD could have been with the 77-year-old actor having a real flesh and blood and hair covered co-star.   

I'll come back to this soon.  

 

 

It should be noted that Ford - despite the somewhat misleading advertising campaign - isn't in THE CALL OF THE WILD all that much until its second half, mostly because, true to London's book, the main character here is Buck and him journeying from overcoming multiple hardships and abuses into finding harmonious relationships with well meaning and good people, only later to be drawn back into the more primal pleasures of the world away from people and civilization.  As portrayed in motion capture form by Terry Notary (the behind the scenes footage of him on the inevitable upcoming home video release should be priceless), Buck begins this film as the pet of Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford), who resides in California and seems to have had just about enough of this large St. Bernard/Scotch Collie's disruptive shenanigans.  Cruel fate steps in when Buck is brutally kidnapped, but thankfully gets eventually taken in by some kindly French Canadian sled dog team owners (Omar Sy and Cara Gee).  Cruel fate steps in yet again when this squad's mail delivering contract expires, which leads the owners to tearfully sell their dogs, including the incredibly unlucky Buck. 

The bad news continues for Buck when he's purchased by a Gold Rush obsessed and animal hating American, Hal (Dan Stevens), who has come to the Yukon with his family in search of fortune and glory. Just when things look bleak for Buck's well being, along comes a rugged and aging outdoorsman, John Thornton (Ford), to swoop in and rescue the dog from Hal's vile clutches.  It's at this point in the story when Buck starts to have some semblance of a healthy and normal life alongside John, who has his own share of past demons that he's trying to exorcise.  While both of these lost souls find themselves healing for the better in each other's company, that dastardly Hal continues to hold a grudge and vows to hunt down the pair and make them pay for costing him his livelihood.   

THE CALL OF THE WILD does a reasonably adequate job of capturing the spirit of London's book, and the overall narrative of this 140 pound cross breed dog having to soldier on through multiple indecencies and obstacles to come out in the end with a mutually nurturing relationship with John remains a touching and engaging one here.  At its heart, this story is about lost and wounded souls finding one another and trying to find redemption through the power of their new fangled friendship.  That's not to say that THE CALL OF THE WILD is a happy-go-lucky adventure romp about our relationship with man's best friend; this is a surprisingly dark and dreary film at times (especially for a typically tame PG rating), and during multiple times in the narrative we bare witness to instances of hard to watch animal cruelty.  Humans and animals die here.  I appreciated THE CALL OF THE WILD for its willingness to not go the completely watered down and sanitized road for this type of material.  Complimenting this is just how beautifully the film is shot (when actually in the wild) by industry veteran Janusz Kaminski, who makes this a vast travelogue picture that's worth our time to get visually lost in. 

Did I mention already how crazy good Ford is in this film?  In a throwback to his BLADE RUNNER original theatrical release days, the actor serves as the narrator of the piece, commenting on Buck's extraordinary journey, typified by dangers large and small, emotional and physical.  Sporting a thick mangy beard and a rugged, but beaten down world weariness, Ford's work here as John is classically understated, but nevertheless commanding.  And considering that he was acting opposite of Terry Notary in a mo-cap suit for most of the production, Ford's always credible presence in the film reacting to Buck is pretty extraordinary.  But, damn it, Buck himself remains such a distracting entity in own film.  Perhaps there's something to say about director Chris Sanders (who previously made the first and truly remarkable HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON entry, making his live action filmmaking debut here) opting to use computer animation to bring Buck to life in ways that were arguably not possible in many scenes that would have put real dogs in danger on set.  Having a CG dog is one bothersome thing, but I was almost more taken aback by the fact that Sanders placed his characters - real and not - in so many environments that were obviously shot on vast green screen soundstages, adding another unwelcome layer of artificiality to the proceedings.  For a film that's supposed to be set in the harshest extremes of a late 19th Century frontier world, THE CALL OF THE WILD fundamentally lacks a tactile look and feel at times. 

There are other problems afoot here as well, like Stevens' grotesquely over the top villain in Hal, who's barely developed at all as a potentially compelling antagonist and instead is just dropped into the story to provide some dutifully manufactured tension.  Stevens rarely feels credibly as a sizeable threat against the grizzled likes of Ford.  The tonal map covered in THE CALL OF THE WILD is spastic and uneven at times: One moment, the film is a slapstick inspired road trip farce, whereas other times is a frighteningly morose and violent picture (again, I'm glad this film embraced its more macabre elements, but the unifying tonal vision and balance here is strangely off).  It's all too bad, because THE CALL OF THE WILD has its share of pleasures, like a grounded, dignified, and committed performance by Ford, a faithfulness to the thematic undercurrents of dealing with nature's hardships from the book, and some strong production values.  But the intersection between the real and unreal here simply bothered me too much.  Maybe THE CALL OF THE WILD would have worked better as a fully realized animated feature film?  I dunno.  There's an odd dramatic disconnect and equally weird uncanny valley effect at play in the film that's nearly impossible to shake.  The core ingredients are here for the making of a pretty solid family entertainment, leaving THE CALL OF THE WILD feeling lost in the wilderness as a result.   

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