First impressions are everything, especially when you're dealing with a beloved piece of source material, giving its main character the CGI treatment, and expecting audiences who are beginning to differentiate between practical and digital creations to wholeheartedly buy into it.
But enough about 'Sonic the Hedgehog,' let's talk about 'The Call of the Wild.'
This is actually the second adaptation of Jack London's 1903 novel of the same name, after William Wellman's 1935 version starring Clark Gable. I actually found out after the screening that the novel was apparently a beloved piece of literature that was pivotal to a lot of people's educations through multiple generations...and apparently my school just never got the memo, so I never read it.
What I did have a connection to was the film's director, Chris Sanders. If you're an animation nerd like myself, you might know Sanders' name for his work in animation, directing films like 'The Croods,' 'Lilo and Stitch,' and even the first 'How to Train Your Dragon' film. He's already proven himself pretty adept at telling compelling narratives, and I was curious to see if he could pull off the kind of live-action to animation transition we've seen in directors like Brad Bird and Tim Burton.
*Here's your fascinating film trivia for today: the 1935 film was actually the last project released before the merger that created 20th Century Fox, whereas this film is the first released under the studio's recently rebranded name of Twentieth Century Studios (cue "The More You Know" soundbite).
Getting past all of that, is 'The Call of the Wild' the adventurous ride we all hoped? Well, without having any significant connection to the source material, I'll at least say that 'The Call of the Wild' resonated with me more than I thought it had the ability to. In large part, I think that's in thanks to its story that genuinely tries to explore ideas of finding purpose and genuine connection that Chris Sanders imbues with a central protagonist that does feel properly alive. It's certainly not trying for much beyond that and runs into some pretty sizeable roadblocks that hold it back, but considering a lot of the hesitation I and many others had going in, this is surprising.
The film follows Buck, a dog living in a privileged household sometime in the 1800s under the care of Judge Miller (played by Bradley Whitford). One night, Buck is kidnapped from his home and sold to freight haulers in Canada's Yukon Territory. At this point, many have traveled to the Yukon in search of gold in the hills, but few have found success.
From there, we follow Buck's adventures as a member of a bobsled postal team lead by Perrault (played by Omar Sy) and Francois (played by Cara Gee), as well as under the command of Hal (played by Dan Stevens) and Mercedes (played by Karen Gillan), socialites who are looking to build their fortune with the untapped gold.
Eventually, Buck winds up under the care of a man named John Thornton (played by Harrison Ford). John is one of the few in the settlement who is not a prospector, but instead came to the Yukon after his young son passed away.
As the two begin to care for each other, John decides to trek beyond the mapped areas of the mountains to explore what lies beyond, something he had promised his son he would do. Through unstable weather, treacherous landscapes, and other challenges, John and Buck traverse further into the wilderness, hoping to build lasting connections along the way.
Let's start out with the thing that, if we're being honest, is the reason anyone was talking about this movie: it's a gruff-looking Harrison Ford in the woods...with a CGI St. Bernard. I'll be the one to say it: the effects are actually surprisingly excellent. I heard some people walking out of the movie talking about some of the more jarring attributes of the VFX (and I think there's some merit to that), but if we're solely talking about utilizing Buck as a protagonist, I think it turned out pretty great. A lot of that credit should go to motion-capture performer Terry Notary (best known for his work as King Kong in 'Kong: Skull Island'). When Buck is in awe of seeing snow or seething with anger at being overworked, Notary manages to give that emotion proper weight quite surprisingly.
As far as looking at Buck's journey, it does provide a film that feels messily paced, but does have a real sense of adventure to it. The marketing pulls a bit of a 'Blade Runner: 2049' on us, framing the meat of the story around Buck and John's journey into the wilderness, when the film has another half that is just as important. As far as that arc goes, I totally get how funny it is thinking of Harrison Ford trying to not look silly acting against Terry Notary's canine antics, but I have to give Ford credit here. He gives the John character a sense of wisdom that you know comes from a place of tragedy and doubt, but never delves too much into grouchy or ill-tempered territory.
Yet, when we turn to the negatives, my biggest issue comes with my thoughts on the visuals. Remember when I mentioned hoping that Chris Sanders could make the jump from animation to live-action? As I was thinking about the film, a lot of the little nuances of the visuals, and even the pacing of the film itself, started to unveil one sad truth: I can't help but think that maybe this film should have been animated.
That's not to say that Chris Sanders fails to make the jump into live-action, far from it actually. But looking at the visual direction of the film - not just Buck and his movements, but how other characters move and feel, how the dialogue weaves in and out of the story - it almost seems prime for a visual medium.
It almost makes sense because one of my big comparisons walking out was thinking of Dreamworks' 'Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,' which is also an old-style animal adventure, but because it's animated, the film's movement have the fluidity to rely on that live-action can't necessarily bring. Beyond that, there are also the issues of plotting along that this movie suffers from. Really, if you're distracted or even just not interested in Buck's journey, the themes of environmental conservationism and finding a sense of belonging aren't that interesting beyond their basic tenets.
The human characters are the same way; Harrison Ford is tragically kind, Dan Stevens in maniacally greedy, and so on. Even some of the visuals themselves, for as fantastic as I think they look, are drudging a bit too close to uncanny valley territory that might turn some people off automatically. I will also add that the marketing is a bit misleading, both in terms of the focus on the human characters and its time period (although I'm sure many of you who ARE familiar with the source material probably won't feel that way, so let's move on).
'The Call of the Wild' is the definition of a solid family film. There's enough humor for kids, enough depth for adults, and enough ideas to make the story feel worthy of its scale. While I will still contend that live-action may have been an ill-conceived approach, the visuals and landscapes we do get to explore drive home some of the natural appreciation the film is trying to go for, at least for a little while.
If nothing else, that short runtime of 100 minutes benefits the story as well; the journey has legitimate stakes, but never tries to overstay its welcome or become too ambitious. My positivity towards this is likely due to my own low expectations, and yet I can't deny that this did get a reaction out of me, and if the effects haven't completely turned you off, maybe you'll enjoy this genuine trek through the North as well.
Overall, I give 'The Call of the Wild' 7/10.
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