4 out of 5
Adapted from Jack London's classic 1903 novel, The Call of the Wild is set in the Yukon during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush. The story centres on a hapless, clumsy St. Bernard/Scotch Collie dog named Buck who was stolen from his family and sent to work as a sled dog delivering the US Mail. When experienced outdoors man John Thornton (Harrison Ford) comes across the ill-treated Buck, the man saves the dog's life, and they go on the adventure of a lifetime together through some of the most beautiful terrain in the world.
It's clear that director Chris Sanders and I are of a similar vintage and share a similar love of The Wonderful World of Disney TV programme which has heavily influenced this film. It has the two key ingredients that made like the TV programme: a warmhearted tale of triumph over adversity, together with stunning scenery. Less to the fore is Jack London's commentary on society, the subjugation of workers and the cruelty often inflicted. This is a tale of optimism. I had to check my notes to see that this had not been released as a Disney film because it belongs there. But of course, Disney own 20th Century Fox now, who did distribute it. One wonders why they didn't fully own it as it sits very comfortably within their oeuvre.
The scenery is absolutely gorgeous and for that reason alone, the work of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski deserves to be seen on the big screen. Kaminski is one of Speilberg's go-to cinematographers and he used him on Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, Ready Player One, Bridge of Spies, etc. I suspect his experience on Ready Player One helped in filming The Call of the Wild which features a motion-capture dog. If there is a flaw with teh film, it is in the CGI. Terry Notary does a wonderful job for the motion-capture role of Buck, our canine hero. However the CGI overlay and some of the CGI sequences were poor and certainly not up to the standard we have come to expect from Disney. I suspect younger viewers will be fine and it is just my nit-picking!
The fact that the film relies on computer-animated animals is also worthy of examining. The film industry has understood that using animals in TV and films may not be ethical. Even when they're treated well, humans are still forcing animals to work without their consent. Since The Call of the Wild is about dogs being forced to work, sometimes under brutal, life-threatening conditions, it was a good call to use computer-generated creatures rather than face allegations of hypocrisy. Yes, you may be constantly aware that these dogs aren't the real deal, but they're so expressive, and they can wordlessly communicate with the audience.
Harrison Ford, on the other hand, is as authentic as they come. In playing John Thornton, he's given us the guy we believe him to be: a little cranky, a little wise, and a whole lot of wonderful. It's probably one of his best performances in years.
The Call of the Wild, thankfully, gives us a hero dog who doesn't die. There's so much to be gained from the lessons Buck learns, lessons that could be unfamiliar to some of today's more insulated children. Life is unfair, but if you lean in rather than check out, you'll conquer its arduous but rewarding journey.