Due to be released in 2019 before Disney’s acquisition of Fox, Chris Sanders’ The Call of the Wild finally hits the big screen; now with the added status of being the first major release from the newly knighted 20th Century Studios. Despite the House of Mouse supposedly having little to do with the production before the acquisition, there’s a lot about The Call of The Wild that feels like Mickey’s fingerprints are all over it.
Based on Jack London’s novel of the same name, the film follows the ‘adventures’ of domesticated St Bernard/Scotch Collie crossbreed Buck, motion captured by The Square’s Terry Notary. No, really. Living with his affluent owners in California, in the early part of the 20th Century, Buck wants for nothing and bounds around getting into the kind of mischief one only sees outside of the Beethoven franchise. His furry little life is quickly upturned when he’s dognapped from his front porch. From this point onwards, Buck’s life becomes a series of vignettes as he encounters several different owners, including Omar Sy’s postman, Perrault, and his gang of sled dogs, before finally settling down with the mournful and somewhat suicidal, John Thornton (Harrison Ford).
Marketed and sold as a family film for all ages, the prospect of watching the film will raise the eyebrows of those more familiar with London’s original text. Certainly, there will be parents questioning whether to take their little ones to a tale filled with doggy danger. To be upfront, aside from some early offscreen canine abuse at the hands of scrupulous poachers, The Call of The Wild plays it remarkably safe.
Dogs don’t die in the Yukon here, they run away from danger. When they fight, it’s a bloodless affair that feels more like a WWE smackdown. And evil ‘injuns’, the Yeehat, are non-existent; replaced instead by the sneering pantomime villain Hal (Dan Stevens), who sees John and Buck as a threat to his desire to be rich. Not that any of this is a huge problem. For sure, The Call of the Wild is full of heart and let’s be honest, it doesn’t hurt to shelter children from the more problematic elements of the original text. Yes, Stevens comes across as about as threating as Dick Dastardly, but at least everyone knows who they should be booing at when he comes on screen.
What is a shame is The Call of The Wild’s overreliance on CGI. When Buck first bounces onto the screen, emoting and looking like he’s stepped out of Raja Gosnell’s Scooby Doo, it pulls you out of the film almost instantly. Buck’s interactions with his human co-stars brings with it an uncanny valley feel which makes you wonder if everyone in the Yukon is just having a mass hallucination about a giant dog that smiles, winks and understands human concepts such as alcoholism and grief. To be honest, we should probably all be thankful that Buck wasn’t voiced by Chris Pratt (though that’s not to say that it didn’t cross someone’s mind.)
Elsewhere, it’s very clear that this is a studio bound movie where perilous avalanches and sun-soaked scenery don’t have the same impact as filming out in the real world would have had. We’re not talking Phantom Menace levels of digital naffness, but it can certainly be distracting.
However, when it comes down to it, if this critic was to be really honest, despite the film often feeling like one long video game cut scene, there are moments of genuine emotion that will have you pretending that you have dust in your eye. The Call of the Wild wears its heart on its sleeve and if you’re looking for a swift 100 minutes that’ll make you laugh and cry in equal measure, this might be the perfect film for a Sunday afternoon.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★☆☆
‘The Call of the Wild’ hits Australian cinemas on February 20 and opens in the U.S. on February 21.