Sunday, 1 March 2020

Review: The Call Of The Wild

The Call Of The Wild
Cert: PG / 100 mins / Dir. Chris Sanders / Trailer

Regular readers will know I don't like to paint my colours too boldly upon this platform, yet I do have colours. And when the latest version of Jack London's The Call Of The Wild opened bearing the new "20th Century Studios" ident, I must confess to sporting a wry, satisfied grin in that darkened auditorium. Let's make things better. Curiously enough, the 1935 screen adaptation also opened during a time of flux at Fox, so there's at least some odd level of synchronicity outside of the studio-drama, too.

And so in short order we're transported to America's northern states in the 1890s and introduced to our hero, a St.Bernard/Collie cross by the name of Buck (performed through the motion-capture of Terry Notary). Playful, intelligent and more than a little clumsy, Buck is abducted by a gang selling dogs to pull sleds as part of the infamous gold-rush*1. But fate and opportunity intervene in these tumultuous times, and Buck finds himself a wanderer, forging meaningful but temporary relationships with humans and dogs alike. One recurring face is that of John Thornton (Harrison Ford), a reclusive prospector looking to find more (yet less) than precious metal in the hills. The two form a bond beyond language, of companionship and understanding, against the backdrop of a society scrabbling for excess.


So as noted above, Buck is mo-capped here. Which is to say, he's a CGI dog. Precisely why is unclear, as Buck doesn't speak or get up to any particularly unrealistic antics, but after an initial swoop through the canine region of the Uncanny Valley things even out and we're treated to an intricate - if enthusiastic - performance. Ultimately this is probably more about creative precision and control than putting dog-trainers out of business. The story has been previously adapted into five movies, so director Chris Sanders' iteration represents a firm half-way house between its live-action and animated past.

Once the action moves out into the open wilderness, Janusz Kaminski's cinematography has room to shine. The landscapes here are gorgeous, and while the four-legged aspects of the movie raise the question of how much of this scenery is digital, the bottom line is that great aesthetics are still great aesthetics.


And despite the cynicism I forgot to check at the foyer, The Call Of The Wild won me over in fairly short order. As accomplished as the animation of the dogs is (there are many in this), it's much like Luke Skywalker in Yoda's cave on Dagobah: the technical artistry is only fully sold to the audience by the emotional reaction of the human characters. Harrison Ford, Omar Sy and Cara Gee are outstanding in this regard, while even the more pantomime-like performances of Bradley Whitford and Dan Stevens carry over the energy of the piece.

Ford's role is particularly interesting since the movie almost acts as a round-robin retrospective of his career. We get the red-line map journeys and seat-of-your-pants thrill rides on the search for treasure calling back to Indiana Jones; the soundtrack is punctuated with Ford's best laconic narration since Rick Deckard; and of course he's playing a loner on the run from his estranged wife after the loss of their son, who then teams up with a giant hairy companion that he treats unequivocally as an equal. Okay there's no Millennium Falcon here, but if the pair of them had to hide out in an Amish community at some point then we'd have a full set.


Pick your favourite seat if you can, because the episodic structure makes this seem longer than its 100 minutes. Things never drag, but they do feel like a saga. And although it depicts the nurture/nature transition in the opposite direction, the spirit of Buck is what Alpha should have channelled. Not so much a study of humanity's bond with dogs but with nature itself. The peaks and troughs of emotion on display while still being wholly PG-friendly is a solid achievement.

The Call Of The Wild is far better than it has any real right to be in 2020. The film could easily have resorted to outdated, mawkish button-pushing, and while there are still some pointers in that direction, it's saved by the commitment of all involved. Ultimately, you will believe that Buck is a real character, and that's what's important.

But then I would say that, I'm a dog-person...

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
Not entirely sure in all honesty, as I usually avoid what I perceive to be 'this type of thing' like the plague. Even though (and in all likelihood because) I'm a dog-person.

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
It is.

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
It is.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
No, although I think the film will be forgotten more quickly than it deserves.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
That's entirely possible.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: Han Solo is in this.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Bit of a heavy-handed metaphor for the slave-trade, but London's book was only published around forty years after its abolition in the US, so that's fair enough. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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