Call of the Wild, an entertaining heart-on-sleeve old-school adventure

Harrison Ford stars in this live-action and CGI-animated retelling of Jack London’s classic novel about a sledge dog’s survival in the Alaskan wilderness. This is director Chris Sanders’s fourth film, with the previous three each receiving Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature.

While the CGI and script have their limits, Flicks writer Liam Maguren was nonetheless impressed with this “entertaining heart-on-sleeve old-school adventure flick” that’s now in cinemas.

I don’t know what it is about the story of a stolen canine forced to become a sledge dog in the Yukon but Jack London’s 1903 novel has seen about as many screen adaptations as Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This new version’s unique for casting a completely CGI dog as the lead, and while it’s sorely missing the budget to make it completely convincing, there’s a morally wholesome reason for doing so.

In the film’s opening moments, lead boy Buck looks horrendously fake in a real-life mansion next to the real-life human cast. His exaggerated movements and occasionally pre-rendered look combine like a car crash, a distraction that threatens to tear the whole movie down. Somehow, director Chris Sanders weaves some kind of storytelling magic to make Buck a character worth caring about, and it starts going right the moment he’s captured.

Buck’s kidnappers are scum and their dog-beating sticks signal the film’s intent on not being too soft about its subject matter. While it’ll prove too dark for very young children, it’s the type of edge that could prove engaging for older kids. Buck goes through a lot of hardship in this film, situations too distressing to put an actual canine through on set, so the CGI becomes a lot more forgivable in that sense and goes a long way to prevent such grief from feeling too “real”. It also helps buy Buck as a character, his anguish paying off triumphantly when he gains strength, independence, and an understanding of his place in the wild. (He’s also got some tremendous comedic timing.)

With three animated films under his belt—Lilo & Stich, How to Train Your Dragon and The Croods—Sanders carries his affection for nature and the animal kingdom over to his live-action directorial debut. The wilderness holds as many dangers as wonders, and while the dangers aren’t ever as threatening as human evil, the wonders are gorgeously presented like priceless treasures. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, a two-time Oscar-winner and Spielberg regular, makes damn sure of that with sumptuous shots of the mighty Yukon justifying the price of a big-screen ticket. John Powell’s sensitive score, complete with friendly fiddles and soulful wind instruments, also aids the film’s adventurous spirit and ye olde America setting.

It’s also great to see grisly Harrison Ford bring so much warmth as Buck’s pal John Thornton. He seems so happy in the woods by himself with this artificial dog, more so than with actual human beings, and I can’t blame him. It’s just a shame their relationship only really gets into gear halfway through the film, as their adventure together doesn’t feel all that epic in hindsight.

Had Michael Green’s script made more room for the pair, there could have been a greater emotional payoff near the end. As it stands, their story’s a little too brief, a bit reliant on coincidences, and slightly plagued by a hammy Dan Stevens going full Dick Dastardly as the film’s thin villain.

Despite those setbacks, The Call of the Wild still pulls through as an entertaining heart-on-sleeve old-school adventure flick that favours emotive performances from its animal characters over bland hyper-realism. Yes, I’m glaring at you, Lion King.