When a story is told from the point of view of a dog, it seems like it would be an easy assumption to assume that it is “dumbed down” for a family audience. But Jack London’s gritty, often violent classic story The Call of the Wild had our hero, a St. Bernard/Scotch Collie mix named Buck, get clubbed, starved, attacked by other dogs, and left for dead. Some of that happens in Disney’s latest sort-of live action adaptation, but it is tempered by wacky, almost anthropomorphic hijinks and cartoonishly drawn human characters. Even when Buck is at his lowest, you know that when Harrison Ford shows up to help that all will be OK.
When we meet Buck, he is thundering through his people’s house, knocking things over (oh, Buck!), sliding on carpets, and jumping on beds. Immediately you know that something isn’t right. It’s not that it is little kid humor (which it is), but you quickly realize that Buck himself is not a real dog. The main character in our story is completely CGI, which shouldn’t be a problem, really, with technology these days, but it kind of is. Anyone with pets will squint their eyes in suspicion, as something is not… quite… right. He is gorgeously animated, by the way, but he is the animal equivalent of the uncanny valley. You find yourself staring at human hands when they give him a pet to see if there is any depth to the fur.
Anyway, Buck is kidnapped and sold by some ruffians, and next thing you know he is on the way to the Gold Rush in Alaska where he quickly learns (to quote Jack London) “the law of club and fang”. Don’t worry, most violence is efficiently and quickly dealt with so that Buck can become a sled dog for a kindly French-Canadian postal delivery team (warmly played by Omar Sy and Cara Gee), only to be sold to a sadistic, plaid-suit-wearing city slicker prospector (Dan Stevens, practically twirling his moustache), only to be saved by sad, curmudgeonly John Thornton (Harrison Ford). You know that Thornton and Buck will be buddies… I mean it’s curmudgeonly Harrison Ford, for goodness sakes!
However, remember Buck is lured by, yes, the call of the wild! Thornton knows that Buck is an independent spirit, roaming through the woods and making eyes at a gorgeous arctic wolf in his free time. It is just a matter of time before Buck needs to choose between his wild spirit and his kindred spirit Thornton.
Having read London’s original story, I know that it has some grit, despite being a critter story. But the grittiest thing about this family adventure film version is the old man rasp in Ford’s narration of Buck’s journey. In this version, a man can pick up a gold nugget the size of a softball from a river, or a dog can calculate and outrun an avalanche, which is all fine, if a bit fantastical. It does work in several places though. The team of (yes, CGI) dogs that run the postal service, all have distinct, memorable personalities, from the domineering lead dog to the most sheepish of submissive pups. And I’m not going to deny it, but Buck and Thornton’s final scenes together may have squeezed a little bit of water from my eyes (in the way that Ford’s final scenes in Star Wars: The Force Awakens never did).
Ultimately, we have another adaptation that won’t by any means be considered the definitive adaptation of The Call of the Wild. If anything, this one will just be considered the halfway decent, but forgettable scrubbed version.