Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, February 28, 2020

Critic's Corner: A real dog would have been better to answer ‘The Call of the Wild’

Advancements in computer animation have made it possible for filmmakers to render any image imaginable. So instead of asking, “Can we do that?” movie makers now ask, “Should we do that?”

In the case of the dog Buck in 20th Century Fox’s new live action adaptation of Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild,” the answer should have been “No.”

The animation of Buck, the young Saint Bernard and Scottish Shepherd mix at the heart of London’s novel, was not poorly done. It’s passable. But using an animated creature diminishes the impact of the story.

London’s 1903 classic and the film follow Buck as he’s uprooted from his posh California home and transplanted to the Alaskan Yukon of the 1890s. His encounters with various dangers and attempts to survive the harsh environment strip him of civilization and awaken his primal instincts.

Bringing Buck to life on a computer was probably easier than training a dog to perform the many stunts. It also made it possible for Buck to do anything director Chris Sanders (“Lilo & Stitch” and “How to Train Your Dragon”), writer Michael Green and the rest of the crew wanted him to do.

As a result, Buck gets into all manner of scrapes, from rescuing a woman who’s drowning beneath lake ice to fighting the leader of a pack of sled dogs.

Because the new film is a family friendly take on London’s story, Buck also performs many humorous hijinks. But as he rabbits around a corner in his aristocratic California home, slides into a table and nearly knocks off an expensive-looking vase, the animation is unconvincing.

Throughout “The Call of the Wild,” Buck looks like a dog but rarely moves like the real thing. Because of this, the story about the primordial animal that stirs to life within him failed to resonate with me.

Essentially, as a computer animated Buck beholds a computer animated avalanche and leads a computer animated dog sled team out of harm’s way, there’s plenty of spectacle but no connection to something tangible.

Had “The Call of the Wild” employed a real furry, scruffy, wet-nosed pup for the role of Buck, identifying with the film’s themes might have been easier.

Perhaps the producers debated the merits of using live animals and decided it would place too many limits on the story. That’s understandable. Plus, “The Call of the Wild” is not a special effects disaster on the scale of last year’s “Cats.” But it lacks the soul of London’s story.

The environments suffer from the same lack of spirit. Although the computer-rendered locations look real enough, the wilderness never takes on a character of its own.

That’s not to say young viewers won’t like “The Call of the Wild.” There’s enough humor and action to entertain them and the essence of Buck’s story is intact and should speak to them.

The film could also spark their interest in reading London’s novel. If a child has not yet learned to read, the book is short and would make excellent story time material.

But I believe adults will find “The Call of the Wild” to be forgettable. There are worse ways to pass two hours in a movie theater, but there are more engaging ways, too.

I did enjoy Harrison Ford’s participation. He excels at playing a kindhearted man and brings every bit of his well-honed charm and gravitas to the role of John Thornton, Buck’s last human friend.

There’s a nice moment in the movie when Thornton cuts Buck’s harness, freeing him from the world of man and releasing him into the wild. The scene has more impact than any other moment in the film – and it didn’t need a computer animated dog to happen.

As I watched it, I wished Sanders and Green had made a different kind of adaptation.

Unfortunately, motion picture studios like 20th Century Fox have moved past telling stories like “The Call of the Wild” in a simple manner. Audiences likely would not pack a multiplex to see a real Saint Bernard and Scottish Shepherd mix trudging through the Alaskan wilderness on its way to deliver mail. Rather, the allure of spectacle draws them in.

Used well, special effects can help a filmmaker tell a good story. (See “1917” for a recent example.) But when it comes to films like “The Call of the Wild,” the soul of the movie industry seems to be buried beneath its technology.

But like Buck, that spirit is still there and can be stirred to life.