Americans like their films starring dogs heartwarming and without any real peril. Director Chris Sanders and screenwriter Michael Green deliver. The current film adaptation of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild tones down the brutality and harsh environment of the Yukon during the Kodiak gold rush. Many viewers will appreciate downplaying the grim treatment the sled dogs endured in London’s novel. Making the harsh environment of the Yukon a mere gorgeous backdrop tempers the impact of the ice and snow. The Call of the Wild was filmed on location in the Yukon and British Columbia, Canada, and Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography tries to hold the film together. It’s not quite enough.
The Call of the Wild features Buck, a spoiled, ill-behaved 140-pound St. Bernard–Scotch Collie mix. He lives a life in California where he runs amok in town, and in the house, with no consequences. He’s a beloved member of a family who has no idea how to control him. He’s stolen and sold north due to the demand for sled dogs in the Yukon. The latest dog to play Buck is a CGI dog, to the delight of animal activists and the dismay of audiences. The overuse of CGI alternately anthropomorphizes the sled dogs or places them deep in the uncanny valley. It also undermines any connection to the dogs in the film, which diminishes any tension in the film.
There’s bits of this film that are great. First Nations actor Cara Gee (Ojibway) plays Francoise, the First Nations wife of Perrault (Omar Sy). Francoise and Perrault are mail carriers who end up with Buck on their dog sled. Harrison Ford plays curmudgeon John Thornton with real emotional depth, thanks to a believable backstory, and enough action to remind viewers that he’s still got it. He grudgingly adopts Buck.
Perhaps it’s the attempt to give a dog motivations and a character arc humans can understand that causes the film to fall apart once he’s done delivering the mail. Perhaps it’s the diluted source material. The villain (Legion’s Dan Stevens), for example, is reminiscent of a silent film mustache-twirling scoundrel. The manifestation of Buck’s personal call of the wild reminds one of a Patronus from Harry Potter and not a primal connection to his ancestors. Buck appears to have a magical gift of sensing Thornton’s pain and then healing it.
Ultimately, this critic could not connect with the story. It may sound pretentious but we’re here for the story. I felt nothing but a mild appreciation for the landscape while watching this film. Viewers that want a vanilla family movie will enjoy this film. There’s no real conflict in the story. Nothing truly awful happens. And then nothing truly great happens. The film stays solidly in its PG rating. Maybe that’s the problem.