HeyUGuys learned a valuable lesson this weekend: don’t judge a dog by its 3D render. Buck’s CG pedigree belies the very real, wildly entertaining, alpha beneath and we can honestly say, hand on heart, that Buck is a very good boy (yes he is!) and The Call of the Wild is a very, VERY good film.
While Jack London’s 1903 novel The Call of the Wild is rightly considered an enduring classic, there are aspects of the powerful story which do not exactly scream family entertainment. For the latest big-screen incarnation, director Chris Sanders and screenwriter Michael Green have sensibly but sensitively nudged the material closer to its PG comfort zone without sacrificing a scrap of its heart.
Buck has fitted a lot of living into his short life, beginning as the pampered pooch who terrorised careworn owner Judge Miller’s (Bradley Whitford) household staff and evolving through his abduction, brutal reeducation and subsequent sale, into a bleaker existence as a pack dog rushing post through the Alaskan Yukon.
Behind the bewilderment and fear, something primal stirs in the distinctive St Bernard/Scotch Shepherd cross. His height already forces him to stand above the pack but the struggle across treacherous icy terrain awakens instincts he shares with his ancestors and recurring visions of a magnificent grey wolf – guardian and teacher – guide him towards his destiny.
There are humans who take a role in shaping Buck’s life too. The perennially late Perrault (Omar Sy) is quick to see the dog’s potential and buys him in place of two conventional sled dogs, to the disgust of partner Françoise (Cara Gee). The more pragmatic of the pair, Françoise initially sees Buck as a misfit and an obstacle until the dog’s remarkable spirit and tenacity win her over.
Buck makes a fleeting early impression on John Thornton (Harrison Ford) which serves the pair well when their paths cross again. The burden of John’s evident pain mirrors Buck’s suffering as both come to terms with navigating the foreign paths of their new, lonelier, lives. When John later cuts Buck free of his harness, it serves as both a physical rescue and a symbolic freeing of his spirit and it is here that Buck’s true next chapter begins.
The Call of the Wild reassuringly recalls the epic animal adventures of movies past and then has Harrison Ford – and Jack London’s stirring words – narrate the action into the bargain. It is onto something of a winner when it has barely begun. However, there is stranger magic at play here and it is entirely down to the talent of Terry Notary and the imperceptible lift his input gave to Ford’s performance.
Terry Notary is a mo-cap master and the act of casting him as Buck means that we can stop raising brows at the arguably cutesy doggy facial expressions in the film’s earliest scenes and just lean in and fall for it. Notary also helps Harrison get his groove back. There is a sparkle in the veteran actor’s eye which has been sadly absent for a really long time.
A friend said he intended to think of this as a Han and Chewie spin-off. To him we say, it’s not Nik…yet at times it comes near as dammit!
Part buddy movie, part spiritual self-help saga and all super entertaining loveliness, The Call of the Wild remains a ripping yarn even after its 21st Century tweaks. Some updates are smart: making François(e) a woman allows a female character to shine in a male-heavy story and differentiates the character from Perrault in an interesting way.
And some of the updates are just straight up merciful: many of the sniffling adults in the audience were grateful to hear that dastardly Dan Stevens’ Hal had not driven his team to their deaths after all (even though deep down we know he did) and we are all spared the worse excesses of animal cruelty and dog death.
Despite this, The Call of the Wild is a pretty gruelling ride for younger viewers to embark on. It is crammed with laughter and (through dreamlike CG enhancement) quite stunning to look at however at its core the themes endure. This is still Jack London’s story and that provenance demands a certain maturity from anyone engaging with it.
The film, like brave free-spirited Buck, fully realises its potential in the Alaskan wild. Beyond all maps as John’s little boy put it. Here the grieving father and the reborn hound explore the delicious possibility of starting again. And London’s beloved and enduring tug of war between loyalty to man and the pursuit of the primal plays out against an exquisite backdrop with the poignant company of John Powell’s score.
The Call of the Wild opens Wednesday 19th February