The 1903 book The Call of the Wild is considered classic literature for young children. So much so, that it has been adapted on-screen multiple times as a silent film, an anime film and through multiple attempts in Hollywood; including a 1996 version starring Rutger Hauer that is considered by some to be the most faithful attempt.
Now in 2020, we have a new adaptation from director Chris Sanders; who makes his solo and live-action debut after co-directing many acclaimed animated films including How To Train Your Dragon, Lilo and Stitch and The Croods. The prospect of another adaptation is fresh enough for the new generation of children but the polarizing reactions from its marketing materials sparked a dilemma.
The main issue is that the animals in the film are computer-generated. While the filmmakers’ intentions can be seen as noble due to safety restrictions — most action scenes are too dangerous for real animals — it is a test to see whether audiences will be able to take this new direction.
Nevertheless, the film does come with a mountain of talent including veteran actor Harrison Ford, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Michael Green, acclaimed cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and a supporting cast including Omar Sy, Dan Stevens, Karen Gillan and others. Will The Call of the Wild be an adventure worth undertaking?
The film follows the story of Buck (played by Terry Notary via motion-capture), an incredibly eager and good-hearted St. Bernard/Scotch Collie that lives a peaceful, domestic life in 1890’s California; while causing misery for his owners. But its life takes a sharp turn for the worst when it gets kidnapped and thrown into the Alaskan Yukon.
Taken in as a mail-delivery dog in a sled team, headed by Perrault (Omar Sy) and Francoise (Cara Gee), Buck gradually learns his place in the world but not after experiencing life-changing conflicts with other equals and heartfelt relationships with the new owners it meets over time.
Does the film manage to excite and emotionally stir like its source material while managing to stand on its own hind legs? Unfortunately, the film lacks a sense of adventure and emotion that made its predecessors great.
First off, the positives. Ford is more than capable as John, the de facto lead and eventual paternal figure of Buck; as he displays charisma, gruffness and much-needed nuance to make his story arc work. The visuals — both CGI and vistas — are overall well-done, with fantastic support from cinematographer Kaminski who captures both the fantasy and the beauty of the settings in the story; especially in the final act.
What is a shame is that most of these efforts are undone by bland cinematic storytelling, an underused supporting cast and an undeniable digital sheen that feels duplicitous with the classical storytelling of the source material. Much has been said about the digital recreation of the animals in the film and while said reasons are noble, it does create a barrier for audiences to climb in order to care for them.
Scenes where the animals are in danger all look like a cutscene from a videogame, which creates a dissonance with the amount of adventure and lack of genuine threat. It also doesn’t help that the animals are hard to believe since they have too many expressions and movement, which feels weightless. They often feel more like a cartoon than an actual creature; acting alongside human beings.
While that criticism may sound quite feeble — especially with films like Pokemon Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog — adaptations of the same story have been made with actual dog actors in mind. A definite mixture of both CGI creations and dog actors would have been the preferred choice; especially in close proximity to 2019’s canine adventure Togo; which was far more effective in showing the treachery in the adventure.
Other flaws with the film are the problematic storytelling, which utilizes far too much narration to the point that it becomes quite patronizing. While it may exist due to Ford’s variable screentime and the target audience; it feels quite misguided that director Sanders — whose work is primarily in animation — would end up using such a storytelling device to get the points of the film across.
The supporting cast are wasted as they all make very little impact and are given little to do. Sy and Gee are both charismatic, but their dialogue is both didactic and unbelievable to the point of unintentionally funny. Speaking of which, the performance of Stevens as the antagonist of the story (alongside Gillan, whose work only amounts to a cameo) is so overblown and intense, that it can only be seen as funny due to how out-of-place it is.
It almost feels that both human protagonist and antagonist had to overcompensate on the fact that there are no animals in the film i.e. Ford overdoes the growling that he usually does while Stevens gnashes the scenery like a chew toy.
The Call of the Wild is a bland disappointment that could have been so much more; had it been more trusting in its audience as well as adhering to the old-fashioned feel of its source material.
TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Call of the Wild is showing in cinemas now.