The Call of the Wild is such a deeply earnest and sincere movie it’s hard not to like it just a little. It’s the type of movie made for the kids and those of us who have faint memories of childhood. Yet, interestingly enough, it has almost no kids in the film whatsoever, unless you count the dog, Buck.
Based on the novel by Jack London of the same name, Chris Sanders’ adaptation is not the first and likely won’t be the last. London’s story is a timeless one about a house dog named Buck who is called back to his primitive roots by a series of fortunate and unfortunate events. The decision to use CGI and motion capture for Buck is a clever one as seeing a real dog go through what Buck does would likely traumatize children and adults.
Buck is beaten, falls into a frozen lake and is trapped under the ice for a period of time, jumps from a roof of a burning cabin, faces down a grizzly bear more than once, and gets into a duel of strength with the leader of his pack to show his dominance. The poor guy goes through a lot. A real dog would make the movie unwatchable.
As it stands it is very watchable despite the existential irony permeating throughout most of the film. London, Sanders, and the screenwriter Michael Green are trying to show us the beauty and majesty of nature. The vast swaths of untamed wilderness and mountains that stretch across our continent to remind us of the incomprehensible beauty and vastness of it all. It’s easy to watch The Call of the Wild and marvel at the grandiose beauty of it all until you remember it’s all ones and zeroes.
The magnificent vistas aren’t real-we are watching computer-generated images. In of itself, this is fine but rarely do we have such massive CGI inflated stories dealing with nature and the “realness” of the outdoors. It’s a hurdle the movie never quite clears if only because I don’t think the movie cares. Heck after a while even I didn’t care.
It would be a lie to say my cynicism melted completely away. Then again it would also be a lie to say that at times I wasn’t utterly enraptured by Buck’s adventures and hoped the big guy made it through okay. What can I say I love dogs and I like going for walks in the woods, the movie had me by my scruff the moment it arrived in Alaska.
Green’s script takes the classic London story and makes it more digestible for a modern younger audience. I was greatly relieved, as you will be if you see the movie, that Buck doesn’t talk nor do we hear his thoughts. What little narration we do have is from Harrison Ford speaking the words of London himself adding a layer of poetic prose to the affair and lifting the movie up a few tiers.
Green and Sanders shy away from any great thesis on man’s relationship with nature and instead focus on Buck’s journey. From the pet of Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford) to companion to a lonely old man grieving for his dead son John Thornton (Harrison Ford). Buck even becomes a sled dog for a time for Perraut (Omar Sy) and Francoise (Cara Gee) who work for the US Postal Service.
Ford is, of course, the main attraction with his gravelly voice and grouchy misanthropic demeanor. He is the perfect foil for a massive Border Scotch Collie like Buck. Much will be said about the motion capture and most of it is great but Ford remarkably makes us believe he is talking and interacting with a real dog without any overt actor tricks. It is a stark reminder of Ford’s talent that he does so much so convincing with so seemingly little effort.
But Perraut and Francoise were my favorite parts of the scene. It was never clear if the two are more than just co-workers but Sy and Gee, like Ford, have us believe there just might be a massive dog panting inches from their face. Buck’s journey from the back of the sled team to the leader of the pack is fascinating because his ascension has less to do with any show of brute force but from his growing compassion and charity towards the rest of the sled team.
Sy and Gee’s relationship with Buck grows over time too. From Perraut’s belief that the dogs can understand him to Gee’s reluctance to think Buck will ever learn to take a turn without wiping out. It is all of a pageant that I found myself absorbed by every step of the way.
One scene has the sled team rushing across a frozen lake with Perraut screaming with joy as Buck leads the team. His yell causes an avalanche and the team must outrun the tidal wave of ice and snow. Here is where the talents of Janusz Kaminski, the cinematographer come in. Kaminski’s camera switches from Buck’s point of view to Perruat’s and Francoise’s, to the other sled dogs, and yet we never lose track of where we are in relation to the avalanche and the team itself.
It sounds so obvious and easy but consider how many times you’ve watched a massive mega-budget spectacle and been either lost because the action is so messy or boring because the action is so rote. Kaminski and Sanders make the avalanche scene work less because of the effects and more because of the camera movement and editing.
Green and Sanders update the story for our modern times but not really. Some may decry “forced diversity” at the use of a black Frenchman and an Inuit woman but they will only be telling on themselves if they do. The Alaskan gold rush brought people of all shapes and all colors to the great white north, greed mixed with the hope of a better life is a potent and powerful cocktail.
If The Call of the Wild does misstep is in little things. Running gags such as Buck’s discomfort with Ford’s Jonathan’s drinking. The dog goes so far as to steal his whiskey and bury it in the snow. Or moments where Kaminski’s camera observes Buck as he behaves more like a looney tunes character than an actual dog. The danger of having a motion capture actor is sometimes they will be unable to resist the urge to “act”.
In no way is this the fault of Terry Notary, the actor who is playing Buck underneath all that computer animation. Notary, despite what the trailers may have you believe, plays Buck as close to a dog as humanly possible. His movements and gait all remarkably mimick that of a dog. It’s only when Sanders tries to go too hard for the laugh or forced merriment, that Notary’s Buck feels off and cartoonish.
But these moments are small and while they pulled me out of the movie did not quell the experience. Notary’s performance is perhaps the greatest in the movie simply because he is the most invisible. It is easy to mention Ford and the others, and even Dan Stevens as the mustache-twirling gold fever-ridden baddie. But Notary’s job is to make us forget that he is even there so we may easier believe in Buck the dog. It is a tricky illusion one worthy of the olden days of silent cinema.
Maybe it’s because growing up I had dogs of my own. Dogs that I have loved with a ferocity that I still think about them to this day. But whatever the reason I found myself deeply charmed by the movie. Or maybe it’s because I too can’t help but be taken aback by the incomprehensible beauty of our countryside.
The Call of the Wild is a story of a bygone era from a genre of literature almost extinct today. But it pulses with a love of the outdoors and an understanding of our desire to be free and answer to no one while also acknowledging that as much as we would like to claim, we are not the master of our domain. It doesn’t do much more outside of that. But hey, that’s leagues more than most CGI laden movies.