The Call of the Wild
by George Wolf
Look, we’re all thinking it, so let’s just get it out there.
Raiders of the Lost Bark.
Happy now? Okay, we can move on.
Truth is, there’s plenty of bark in this latest adaptation of Jack London’s classic novel, but not much bite to be found.
We’re still introduced to Buck, the sturdy St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix, as the spoiled pet of a wealthy California judge (Bradley Whitford) in the late 1800s. Stolen and sold as a sled dog to French-Canadian mail dispatchers, Buck adapts to the pack mentality and the harsh conditions of the Alaskan wilderness, eventually teaming up with the grizzled Thorton (Harrison Ford) for a journey into the Yukon.
It should come as no surprise that Ford is effortlessly affecting as a world weary mountain man. What is surprising is his endearing rapport with a CGI dog (motioned-captured by Terry Notary). Ford’s narration is earnest enough to soften its heavy hands, drawing Thorton and Buck as two kindred spirits, both lost in their own wilderness.
While taking the actual wild out of The Call of the Wild seems sadly ironic, the computer-generated beasts come to fall perfectly in line with director Chris Sanders’ family-ready vision for the enduring tale.
Stripped of any bloody carnage, cultural insensitivities or harsh realities, Sanders (How to Train Your Dragon, Lilo & Stitch, The Croods) and writer Michael Green (Logan, Blade Runner 2049) fill the gaps with obvious questions, easy answers, and a flesh and blood bad guy (Dan Stevens in full Snidley Whiplash mode) who manages to be the biggest cartoon in a film full of computer animation.
Buck himself – looking fine but landing a notch below the motion capture high water of the last Planet of the Apes trilogy – is often stuck between Lassie and Scooby, heroically loyal while seeming to instantly understand everything from English to drunkenness.
With the sharp edges ground down, this Call of the Wild becomes a pleasant metaphor for the simple life, and for finding your place in it. In short, it’s a PG-rated primer, meant to hold a place until the kids are ready for the real thing.