While it is a somewhat sanitized and family friendly version of Jack London’s classic novel, and one that substitutes CGI effects for real dogs, THE CALL OF THE WILD (2020) nonetheless manages to be a successful heartwarming adventure.
There are two reasons for this success.
First, the screenplay by Michael Green, based on Jack London’s novel, is a good one. In spite of Harrison Ford’s sleep-inducing voice-over narration, the story is told crisply and efficiently, apropos for London’s short novel. There’s no fat on this one which clocks in at a brisk 100 minutes. Best of all it’s consistent with its themes of searching for redemption in the wilderness, and the need for answering one’s ancestral call, in this case, the call of the wild.
The second reason, strangely, is the CGI. I say strange because when the movie opens, it’s apparent from the get-go that Buck, the main character in the story and a dog, is a CGI creation and not a real dog. My first thought, especially since it was very apparent and obvious, was that this was going to work against the movie, give it less realism. And while this is true, the story still works because realism becomes secondary. Let me explain. This story is about Buck, a remarkable animal, and realism matters less because Buck is beyond real. He’s exceptional, larger than life, and as such the effects aren’t a detriment. And so realism becomes less important here than truth, and that is one item the movie does not sacrifice.
All this being said, I still would have preferred a real dog, but I can’t deny that the effects won me over, even as I realized what I was watching was a special effect.
THE CALL OF THE WILD is the story of Buck, a half St. Bernard half Scotch Shepherd, who lives a happy spoiled life with the wealthy Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford) and his family. But one night Buck is snatched away, as dogs fetch a good price in this time of the Gold Rush, as sled dogs are needed.
So Buck soon finds himself in the Yukon where he learns to fear the club of man, as he is belted over the head until he learns submission. This one of the areas in the film that is sanitized, as Buck learns to obey quickly, whereas in the novel it was a much more brutal sequence.
Buck becomes part of a sled team delivering the mail, led by two friendly mail carriers Francoise (Cara Gee) and Perrault (Omar Sy). Pearrault in particular treats the dogs well and talks to them as if they are human. The team is led by a dog called Spitz, but when the dogs begin to respect Buck more, a rivalry develops, and eventually Buck replaces Spitz as the lead dog, in another sequence made family friendly. In the novel, Buck kills Spitz. Here in the movie, he simply beats him down till he shows respect.
After Perrault receives orders to sell his sled dog team, Buck and his fellow dogs are purchased by an inexperienced and cruel man Hal (Dan Stevens). Buck is eventually rescued by John Thornton (Harrison Ford) who nurses Buck back to health, and the two share a life of peace and quiet in the snowy wilderness, even as Buck continually hears the call of the wild beckoning him to seek his destiny.
As I said, I had my doubts about this version of THE CALL OF THE WILD, but it really does work, and I left the theater thoroughly satisfied.
Again, while I would have preferred a real dog in the movie, the CGI effects are done well. The CGI model used in the film was a digital scan of a real dog, and it’s pretty convincing. It’s just not 100 percent convincing, and for me, the biggest surprise was that this didn’t really matter. Buck carries this movie. That’s right. The best character in THE CALL OF THE WILD is a dog, and in this case, not even a real dog. Buck shares a genuine bond with his fellow dogs and human owners, and it’s this connection that drives this story forward.
And while Buck outshines the humans in this one, he does receive fine support. Harrison Ford, in spite of his one-note-covers-all voice-over narration, is decent and believable as John Thornton. Interestingly enough, Rutger Hauer played John Thornton in the 1997 version of the story, and of course, Ford and Hauer were adversaries in the classic science fiction film BLADE RUNNER (1982).
My favorite human performance in the movie belongs to Omar Sy as Perrault. He was the most interesting character in the film, other than Buck, and I enjoyed the way he interacted with the dogs. I also enjoyed Cara Gee as Francoise.
And Dan Stevens is sufficiently villainous as the main scoundrel in the film, Hal. It’s a small role, though, and Stevens had much more to do in the recent horror movie APOSTLE (2018), where he played the lead, a man who infiltrates a bizarre and deadly cult to find his missing sister. Stevens also played the Beast in Disney’s live action remake of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017).
Director Chris Sanders keeps this one lean and efficient and manages not to lose sight of the dramatic story elements even while keeping this one family friendly.
Purists of Jack London’s novel may shake their heads and grumble, but dog lovers and fans of good storytelling will appreciate this version of THE CALL OF THE WILD which tells Buck’s story with genuine emotion and respect.
The call of the wild may be less savage here, but it remains intrinsic and true.