“The Call of the Wild” stars Harrison Ford, Dan Stevens, Omar Sy, Karen Gillan, Bradley Whitford, and Colin Woodell. Released on February 21, 2020, the film is about a dog who journeys through the Yukon with an old man.
The film is directed by Chris Sanders, who co-directed “Lilo & Stitch”, “How to Train Your Dragon”, and “The Croods”. It is based on the 1903 novel of the same name by Jack London. When you’re going on a perilous adventure, it’s always important to have a trustworthy partner by your side, whether it’s another human or a big computer-generated canine. The next family film I’ll be talking about this month is the fifth film adaptation of Jack London’s adventure novel that depicts a domesticated dog’s journey into the wild. What’s interesting about this film is that it marks the first live-action feature for director Chris Sanders, who is mostly known for his work on animated features from Disney and DreamWorks Animation such as “How to Train Your Dragon” (my personal favorite from him). Well, it’s part live-action, part animated based on the footage I saw from the trailers. Yeah, apparently, this film has live actors appearing in computer-generated backgrounds and working alongside computer-generated animals, including the dog. That’s one way to avoid controversy from PETA. Whether this strategy succeeds or not is one of the two main questions I will be answering in my review because I can’t judge based on the marketing alone. The second main question is whether this family-friendly adventure is worth taking or not in terms of the quality. Let’s not waste any more time wondering and let’s head off into the wild.
Set in the 1890s, the film follows Buck, a domesticated St. Bernard/Scotch Collie dog who is stolen from his California home and is sold to freight haulers in Yukon. There, he encounters a series of adventures that will test his courage, loyalty, and survival skills, including leading a dog sled team and befriending an old man (Ford) with a troubled past. His trials would soon lead him to discover his true calling. If you read the book that the film is based on, you’ll find that this version kept some of the major elements from the source material, such as the dog sled team plot element, and removed the other elements from the source material in order to appeal to families who aren’t familiar with the book. As someone who hasn’t read the book, I thought the film had some pretty decent moments that’ll please plenty of dog lovers, but they weren’t enough to make this latest adaptation stand out compared to the previous versions that came before it. As I mentioned earlier, this is Chris Sanders’ first live-action debut as a director outside of his work on animation. This means that he had to take advantage of the strengths he developed in his earlier projects in order to deliver the vision that he wanted to portray in live action form. While some of his strengths worked well in his favor, the end result couldn’t quite reach the same amount of emotion as his animated works that involve a human-animal relationship in terms of storytelling. The story had plenty of elements that will keep both kids and adults entertained, such as the action sequences and Buck’s adorable personality, even though some of these sequences might be a bit too intense for the youngsters. Unfortunately, those elements weren’t able to overcome its series of sentimental moments that were a bit too safe. Keep in mind that this film is about a dog who gets lost in the wild and has to deal with a couple of abusive human characters. The human cast delivered some good performances, especially Harrison Ford and Omar Sy, but I have to give credit to Terry Notary for his mo-cap performance as Buck. Despite the dog’s CGI appearance, both Sanders and Notary did well in making Buck as likable as any other person who’s involved in his journey. This is one of Sanders' strengths that made "The Call of the Wild" and his other films work for me. Like Stitch and Toothless, Buck has the right amount of adorability that'll easily impress young kids and adults, even though he's not a real animal. Another element that I would like to mention is the film’s visual effects. The filmmakers did some heavy work on the special effects for the film’s settings and surprisingly, the animals. While the visuals worked really well in creating some gorgeous sceneries, the same cannot be said for the CGI on the animals. All of the animals in the film, including Buck, are 100% computer-generated. They didn’t use any real life animals for the sake of avoiding controversy. Because of this, the film wasn’t able to maintain its sense of tension and realism throughout the entire narrative despite having a couple of sequences that were quite intense. I can give them points for creating some good CGI, but aside from that, it just looked out of place when it comes to how they used it. I can understand why they went down that route, but to me, it felt more like an unnecessary shortcut rather than a storytelling tool. The best possible solution that would’ve improve this issue, in my opinion, is to get real life animals for the drama moments and use CGI animals for the stunts that were deemed too dangerous or impossible for the real animals to do. That way, the film will be able to keep its sense of excitement and realism consistent all the way through. Another possible solution? Make the entire film animated.
Overall, “The Call of the Wild” is a tolerable trip for dog lovers young and old, but as an actual piece of filmmaking, it’s a troubling experience that’s more mild than wild. To its credit, the film looked beautiful in terms of the visualized sceneries and the action scenes were nicely directed by Chris Sanders. Plus, the performances from the human cast were believable enough to help the film stand its ground against the dangerous forces of nature. However, its story wasn’t able to reach the same standards as Sanders’ other works and the CGI work on the animals overshadowed its sense of realism. I can see kids and their parents liking this because of Buck, but I can also see the fact that the film can be a tough sell for people who are fans of the book and for those who have a keen eye on visual filmmaking. It had the potential to be good, but the direction they took on the visuals and the story prevented it from reaching that said potential. It’s the type of journey that’s enjoyable to take, but doesn’t have a lot of memorable moments to make me want to go again immediately.