One of my great-great-grandfathers worked as a railroad chief engineer. The construction of the White Pass & Yukon Railway, out of Skagway, Alaska, was one large project for him. So when I learned that The Call of the Wild is set during the same time and place, I became more intrigued. The Call of the Wild is an adventure film, based on Jack London’s 1903 novel of the same name. It stars Harrison Ford and a dog made with CGI, named Buck. Chris Sanders directed the film in his live-action directorial debut. Sanders gained animation experience with Disney during its Renaissance in the 1990’s.
Watch It: If you want to see Harrison Ford give a good performance as a rugged outdoorsman.
Skip It: If you’re expecting to see real-life dogs.
The Call of the Wild permeates with a family-oriented tone from start to finish. The lead character is a St. Bernard/Scotch Colie dog named Buck. From scene to scene, Buck’s human-like mannerisms will cater to young children. Small events seem written to please family audiences with light-hearted humor and pleasure. One involves a hungry Buck noticing a long table of dinner food outside. A couple cuts later, the table setting and food is everywhere, as Buck holds a turkey leg in his mouth.
This all sounds harmless. But anyone who even knows a summary of the adventure novel will see the film as quite watered-down. Changes that occur in the source material are more dramatic and poignant. In the film, these events were cut for a more family-centered audience. And nothing demands that a film be for more mature audiences. But these dramatic changes were either minimized or removed. As a result, audiences lose a more empathetic connection with these characters. We also have a harder time following what’s going on when moving changes don’t occur.
On the plus side, some changes appear in the form of political correctness. Climactic scenes in the novel do not surface that painted a certain group in a strong, negative light. Again, and in spite of that, these removals lead to a mediocre inclusion of a different sort of antagonism. The main antagonist comes in the form of Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens. Stevens, though talented as an actor, is all too out of place as the film’s bad guy.
Harrison Ford, on the flip side, gives a more contextual performance. Ford is well-suited to the cabin-cleaning, fire-making, whiskey drinking, and canoe paddling outdoorsman that the film requires. He also plays well as a dog’s best friend, a computer-generated dog named Buck. But the CGI of Buck and his fellow sled dogs is quite distracting. We should get lost in the joyous adventure of these dogs through the Klondike region of Canada. Instead, this Northern adventure struggles to gel with ample amounts of modern technology.
The Call of the Wild is not a bad film. But it doesn’t succeed to the point of recommending it to general audiences. A loose and questionable storyline proceeds along a safe and cautious path. Harrison Ford provides a well-executed role as a rugged outdoorsman. But the harmful changes and distracting CGI keep The Call of the Wild from being something truly adventurous.