The Call of the Wild is a family adventure adapted from the beloved 1903 novel by Jack London. It is the episodic story of a dog named Buck and the various people he meets on his journey through Alaska and the Yukon during the 1890s gold rush. It has action, drama, a little humor and will probably be enjoyed by kids and dog lovers. It is okay at that level, with a likable hero and some good scenery. What it lacks is depth, a strong narrative or interesting human characters. While Buck is kind, smart and brave, there are too many moments where the filmmakers cheat his character arc by having him act more like a person. He is a “cute movie dog,” detracting from his evolution and taking me out of the story far too often. That will not matter to those for whom the phrase “cute movie dog” is a massive selling point. For the rest of us, it all adds up to sort of decent.
Things begin with Buck comfortable, if very spoiled, living with a wealthy family. He is stolen and sold to a mail carrier who makes him a sled dog. From there he develops a friendship with a lonely old man and crosses paths with a gold hungry jerk. The most compelling material involves Buck’s relationship with other animals and how that changes him. Unfortunately, The Call of the Wild (92 minutes without the end credits) struggles to make anything of it.
Buck was created using motion-capture (his movements were performed by Terry Notary, then he was computer animated). Though I knew I was not looking at an actual dog, that aspect of the production was never a distraction. Yeah, there are a couple of instances where his movements are unnatural, but realism is not super important here, so it did not bother me. It also allows for a few action sequences which would otherwise have been pretty much impossible. The problem comes from the filmmakers not being clear on what Buck’s story is or how they want to tell it.
It is about Buck learning to better understand his own primal instincts. However, the philosophical narration by Harrison Ford as one of his companions, simplifies everything in a way that makes events feel manufactured. Each complication is given detailed descriptions, making Buck’s motivations more human than they should be. It contradicts the major themes, but I guess it was decided audiences needed things spelled out for them as bluntly as possible. I did appreciate Ford’s reading (he has a good voice for the job), and this is certainly preferable to having Buck narrate. Still, I wish they had not felt it necessary to be so literal. Ford kept telling me things that already seemed obvious.
That makes the progression of the story clunky. Ford’s character is broadly drawn and does not do much of interest. Dan Steven’s selfish villain is a moustache-twirling caricature I could definitely have done without. Omar Sy and Cara Gee as the mail carriers have the best relationship with Buck, friendly, if demanding. Theirs is undoubtedly the most entertaining section of The Call of the Wild, showing Buck growing organically. It also contains a nice subplot involving him getting used to working with other dogs and a genuinely exciting scene set on the ice. It is the most focused stretch of the movie. An entire movie could have been made about Buck and the sled dog team. Here, it is a part that is much stronger than the whole.
The Call of the Wild tries to be a thrilling, thought-provoking, wilderness adventure for the family. Largely, it is not. There is nothing offensive about it; it is not too violent and kids will likely love Buck. Yet it panders to its target audience as it treads familiar ground. It is at least the seventh big screen adaptation of London’s book; maybe the eighth will finally be able to replicate what has made it so enduring.
2¾ out of 5
Terry Notary as Buck
Harrison Ford as John Thornton
Dan Stevens as Hal
Omar Sy as Perrault
Cara Gee as Françoise
Directed by Chris Sanders
Screenplay by Michael Green