In “The Call of the Wild”, You’ll Bite Off More Than Yukon Chew

Call of the Wild Harrison Ford sitting next to a suspiciously CG pooch. (20th Century Studios)

Disney continues to shuffle off Fox’s remaining output with this limp, awkward adaptation of the Jack London novel.

Jack London started writing The Call of the Wild at the dawn of the 20th century after traveling through Yukon country during the height of the Gold Rush. It was in this period of blind human ambition and greed that he conceived of a story told through a dog’s eyes. The very good dog, Buck, starts as a civilized house pet before being stolen and sold as a sled dog in Alaska. There he gets passed from owner to owner, some much nicer than others, and along the way discovers that his destiny is not with humans but with the beasts of the wilderness, like his ancestors before him.

It’s a beautifully written and visceral adventure about the brutality of man, the overwhelming power of nature, and the freedom we’re capable of when we turn our back on society’s rules. On the other hand, the new film adaptation of The Call of the Wild has all the thematic weight of an Air Bud sequel. 

Director Chris Sanders, who is very accomplished in the world of animated film with credits like How to Train Your Dragon and Lilo & Stitch to his name, finds himself in no man’s land in the world of live-action. In order to really dig into the book’s themes and capture the harrowing journey Buck goes through, it’s necessary to make it a brutal animated movie like Watership Down. But that would be too much for any Disney-owned studio. Instead, we get a very saturated version of the novel that relies on a CGI dog that looks like a reject from Marmaduke

The Expanse‘s Cara Gee in “The Call of the Wild.” (20th Century Studios)

Understandably, it’s hard to adapt a story that’s written from the POV of a dog. It’s even harder when you choose to not go the route of a talking dog movie. Since we’re not in Buck’s head, we have to either rely on the awful CGI to convey his emotional journey or watch the humans inexplicably give exposition and cliched inspirational monologues to these animals. 

There’s a scene where Buck’s first Alaskan owner, Perrault (Omar Sy), stands in front of a map and gives a General Patton-like speech to his fleet of sled dogs, breaking down the exact route they are about to take. It’s one of the many points of the movie that makes you ask, “Wait, is this actually an Air Bud sequel?!” Later, Buck’s new owner, John Thornton (Harrison Ford), also uses a map to break down for Buck—a dog who doesn’t understand the English language—what the next act will be.

Worse yet, Call of the Wild uses Ford as the narrator for large portions, but he narrates with such little enthusiasm it’s like we’re bothering him while he’s grocery shopping. (Did we learn nothing from the theatrical cut of Blade Runner?) He also brings that level of energy to his performance, going through the motions and trying his best not to roll his eyes at what’s happening around him. The film gives his character more backstory than the book by making him a father grieving the death of his son by venturing into the wilderness alone and drinking too much. Buck helps Thornton by hiding his bottle of booze and giving him disapproving glances when he tries to drink again, proving that dogs are Man’s Best Friend as well as great AA sponsors. 

The new film adaptation of Call of the Wild has all the thematic weight of an Air Bud sequel. 

There’s also the main villain, the literally mustache-twirling Hal (Dan Stevens), who doesn’t appear until the second half of the movie and is forced to be the villain, seemingly to avoid replicating the problematic climax of the book. One has to wonder what movie Stevens thinks he’s in, but with his loud costume and even louder performance, it seems a lot more fun than the one we’re watching.

To add even more to this mind-boggling misfire, along with its good director, great source material, and very capable actors, this film was shot by world-renowned cinematographer and frequent Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski. The Alaskan landscapes are beautifully captured (because the man who shot Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List knows what he’s doing). It’s a shame a project with this level of talent involved couldn’t come together to make something worthwhile. It’s also a shame London’s literary classic couldn’t get the film treatment it deserves. Then again, are we still sure this wasn’t actually an Air Bud sequel? 

The Call of the Wild mushes its way into theaters February 21.

The Call of the Wild Trailer:

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