Producer: Erwin Stoff Director: Chris Sanders Screenplay: Michael Green Cast: Harrison Ford, Dan Stevens, Omar Sy, Cara Gee, Karen Gillian, Bradley Whitford, Colin Woodell, Michael Horse, Jean Louisa Kelly, Adam Fergus, Abraham Benrubi. Scott MacDonald and Terry Notary Distributor: 20th Century Studios
Training animals for acting jobs in films has never been easy, so in this umpteenth adaptation of Jack Wild’s ever-popular 1903 novella the makers have opted for the simpler—though expensive—alternative of simply dispensing with them altogether by relying on CGI instead. Perhaps someday the technology might be so refined that the difference between the real and the artificial will be unnoticeable, but we’re not there yet. While there are moments when the result is so good as to be indistinguishable from the live-action material in which it’s been situated, more often than not that’s not the case; you’re as aware that the critters you’re watching are ersatz as you are when amazing stunts in superhero movies aren’t being performed by actual actors.
There’s another aspect to the procedure—the inclination to anthropomorphize animals to a degree beyond what’s been done in films before (excluding pure animated pictures, of course). The main character in “The Call of the Wild” is, of course, Buck, who’s kidnapped from his super-indulgent owner (Bradley Whitford) and shipped off to Alaska, where he’s sold off as a sled dog after being brutally cowed into submission, but after a series of adventures reverts to his primitive state, becoming a leader among the wolves of the far north—a transformation presaged by his periodic visions of his ancient wolf ancestor.
From the very beginning of the movie (a slapstick sequence involving the chaos the dog creates at his owner’s big party), Buck—animated after a performance by motion-capture artist Terry Notary (a nimble fellow who’s had a good deal of experience in this capacity)—is given the characteristic of an overly rambunctious but soulful human boy, down to his facial expressions. One supposes this is meant to be charming in the fashion of Chris Sanders’ previous directorial effort, “How to Train Your Dragon.” But that movie was a pure animation effort, and the approach worked in that context; here, the juxtaposition of live-action material and not-quite-right computer-generated stuff is continually distracting and off-putting.
As to plot, screenwriter Michael Green doesn’t toss aside London, but he does simplify, sanitize, sentimentalize and—to provide some big moments—ratchet up the action at several points, especially one that introduces an avalanche. In particular he expands the role of John Thornton, the grizzled old frontiersman played by Harrison Ford who rescues Buck from a brutal owner and is, in turn, rescued by the dog, who weans him off the booze he’s used as an emotional crutch after, in this version, having lost his son and broken up with his wife. Ford brings a grave dignity to the part, which required him to act against Notary much of the time, but even he can’t sell the syrupy narration he has to intone throughout.
In this version, Buck meets Thornton shortly after his arrival in Alaska, even before he’s bought by the mail-delivery duo of Perrault (ebullient Omar Sy) and Françoise (sterner Cara Gee) and becomes the leader of the pack after a nasty confrontation with the arrogant, vicious Spitz for dominance. He proves his mettle not only by speeding to safety in defiance of the aforementioned avalanche, but by saving Françoise after she’s trapped beneath the surface of a frozen lake—another added action sequence.
That changes, however, when he’s purchased by the trio of Hal (Dan Stevens), Mercedes (Karen Gillan and Charles (Colin Woodell), effete gold-hunters whose brutalization of Buck and his team Thornton intervenes to stop, leading Hal to become his enemy. In contrast to Ford, whose performance is restrained and graceful, Stevens is encouraged to go the full Snidely Whiplash roué, hissing out his lines and practically twirling his pencil moustache in villainous glee. Though he’s not computer-generated, Hal is as much a cartoon as Buck is, though in a different sense.
Eventually Buck and Thornton, following the dream of the latter’s dead son, trek to the uncharted northern climes where they find London’s Lost Cabin and a veritable river of gold, and Buck meets up with the wild wolves that will become his new family, once again proving himself by saving one from a raging river. It’s here that Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, which has been lustrous throughout (especially in the mail-delivery sequences), comes into its full glory, capturing the outdoor vistas in luminous widescreen images. (Unfortunately, John Powell’s overripe score goes full throttle here, too.)
For the big, bittersweet finale Green, in an obvious nod to today’s attitudes, understandably drops London’s introduction of savage Native Americans as a plot device. Unfortunately, he replaces them by implausibly bringing the nefarious Hal back onto the scene, played with even twitchier malevolence by Stevens. To matter matters worse, the choreography of the sequence is muffed, due not just to Sanders’ clumsiness but the ham-fisted editing by William Hoy and David Heinz.
Still, Jack London’s beloved book has survived misguided adaptations in the past, and will outlive this one as well.