Upon leaving this latest adaptation of Jack London’s classic novel, The Call of the Wild, I couldn’t help but feel conflicted. On the one hand, Chris Sanders has produced a sheeny spectacle, one that (mostly) gallops at a pleasant pace, and leaves one with an uplifting sense of warmth. But equally, that prevailing sense of heartfelt positivity can’t help but clash with the dark thematic material that the film is dealing with. It’s a film in conflict with itself, and the product arguably lacks the bite of a truly wild story for the sake of sentimentalist wonder.
Buck is an abnormally large domesticated dog, who is abducted by traffickers and sent to the Yukon in order to assist prospectors and those in search of gold. Contextually, the film situates itself on a turbulent natural frontier, and the story of the fish (or dog) out of water into the unknown establishes the potential for a gritty and exciting spectacle, exploring the perils of life in the gold rush and the horrors present in nature.
Praise must be given to the relative attempt at fulfilling these objectives. Harrison Ford especially brings a gravitas that elevates the material above simply sanitised Disney fare (ironic considering it’s from 20th Century Studios, now a subsidiary company of Disney). He’s gruff and wizened, but filled with a warmth and sense of playfulness which makes his time on screen, especially his relationship with Buck, have a realistic and weighty quality. I would go so far as to say that this is the most dynamic Ford has been in years. He seems to genuinely care about the role, and that commitment is refreshing and reminiscent of why he is such a beloved star. But reader, be warned. This is not a Harrison Ford dominated film (even though he features twice on the poster). It is squarely focused on Buck with Ford being an extremely memorable supporting performance. Luckily, there are a few other excellent cameos, most notably from the ever reliable Dan Stevens.
Unfortunately, the rest of the movie can’t quite match the magnetism of Ford and the cast. Much has already been said about the controversial special effects of Buck and the rest of the dogs, and indeed, they are a little rough around the edges (or indeed smooth). Unlike the spectacular motion capture work of the last few years that have graced screens in the likes of the Planet of the Apes franchise, Buck never feels more than a computer generated image. But that’s possibly the case simply because the film insists on the entirely being a CGI-fest, from the sets to the horrifically artificial landscapes. Much of the movie seems to take place in front of a Desktop wallpaper rather than a living breathing world. For a film that so heavily emphasises the uncompromising nature of the wilderness, it’s exceptionally glossy and clean.
Any of the stark realities of what the film tackles (and there are supposed to be a lot of them) are smoothed over for the sake of sentimentality and sleek visuals. There are two clear moments where the dialogue made me audibly groan (that may be more attributable to my cynicism than anything else but I digress), and it’s a shame, as the story is compelling and the performances great. I wish the movie traded some of the saccharine in service of a more compelling script; it would have made for a much more memorable experience. Much of that sentimentality takes place in the back half of the film, making for a jarring juxtaposition from the first two acts, which were altogether more tightly written. Without Ford, the final third may have easily fallen apart.
As it is, The Call of the Wild isn’t an offensive film in any way. In fact, it’s the kind of movie that I can see plenty enjoying, either in cinemas or when it makes its way onto the ancillary market in a few months. But it’s an equally frustrating movie, one which could have been a little more notable. All of this results in something that I can see becoming the subject of fierce debate and split opinion going forward.
5.5/10: The Call of the Wild has got fabulous source material behind it, and star power giving it some flesh and bone. But its bite is missing, due to the over-reliance on artificiality and mawkishness both in its script and visual storytelling.