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REVIEW: The Call of the Wild

20th Century Studios
Rated: PG
Run Time: 100 minutes
Director: Chris Sanders

The Story/The Direction

The Call of the Wild is an adventure film based on the Jack London 1903 novel of the same name, with numerous other cinematic versions of the story. The film is directed by Chris Sanders—in his live-action directorial debut—and stars Harrison Ford, Dan Stevens, Omar Sy, Karen Gillan, Bradley Whitford, and Colin Woodell. It takes place in the 1890’s Klondike Gold Rush. A dog named ‘Buck’ is stolen from his home in California and sent to Canada, where he befriends Thornton (played by Ford). Buck gets in touch with his ancestral wild side and his experiences change his life forever. This story was previously adapted into a silent film in 1923 and then again in 1935, 1972 and 1997 with dialogue, starring Jack Mulhall, Clark Gable, Charlton Heston, and Rutger Hauer as Thornton, respectively.

For those who did not read the book in their middle school or high school English classes, the novel deals with a Christian theme of love and redemption. It also is about the survival of the fittest as London puts Buck in conflict with humans, other dogs, and the environment itself. He must challenge, survive, and conquer all of these conflicts. Buck is a domesticated dog at the beginning of the story but he must change to survive. He must learn to get in touch with his ancestral instincts and become a wild animal. The law of the pack rules, and good-natured animals can be torn to pieces; as such, London also looks at “nature vs. nurture”. Raised as a pet, Buck is (by heredity) a wolf. The change of environment brings up his innate characteristics and strengths to the point where he fights for survival and becomes the leader of the pack. 

The 1935 film has become more famous for its off-screen problems between its stars of Gable and Loretta Young which I’ll get to in a minute. Aside from the issues behind the scenes, this movie really changes the protagonist of the original story. The film omits all but one of the book’s storylines and concentrates the film on Thornton. Having said that, the most famous scene from the book did make it into the movie where Thornton bets that Buck can pull a half-ton sled for 100 yards. But the film focuses not on the harsh conditions of life encountered by a sled dog but it is a lighthearted romantic adventure film that just so happens to feature a dog as a pet. 

It has some really breathtaking winter scenery and the actors are on point. Gable plays his alpha male well while Jack Oakie provides comedic relief. Loretta Young is the damsel-in-distress, but she’s not always helpless. Gable and Young have some really good chemistry together mostly because it was real. They were noted to be very flirtatious on set but there’s more to it than that: Young and Gable were rumored to have an affair during filming but on the train back to Hollywood from Washington state, Gable entered Young’s compartment and raped her. She then became pregnant with Gable’s child who he constantly denied was his. For many years Young insisted the girl was adopted even though she bore a striking resemblance to her two attractive parents. This led to a lot of problems in her life( of which I won’t go into but it is a very interesting story). Feel free to check out Anne Helen Petersen’s article on this story for the full details. Aside from these off-screen issues, this film does give some good entertainment from an old film even though it’s barely a faithful adaptation of Jack London’s story. It’s worth checking out especially if you’re looking for a classic feel of a movie. 

The only person most Americans will recognize in the 1972 film is Charlton Heston. This version is more faithful to Jack London’s novella but still it focuses more on the human aspect of the story. The cinematography is great and Heston does well in the lead role. If you’re a fan of his, this film is worth checking out. The 1996 film has a slightly longer title The Call of the Wild: Dog of the Yukon and is narrated by Richard Dreyfuss. This film accurately shows this rugged and unsentimental portrait of a dog’s life pushing to survive. However, the film still feels hard to attach to because of the real life dogs. This film is worth checking out as it is the best adaptation in comparison to the prior two films.

Now does this story and meaning track over to the newest rendition? For the most part, yes, it does. Does it show the story’s brutal side? No, but it’s a PG movie. It’s a simpler take on the book but that makes it more appropriate for younger viewers; however, the themes and messages of London’s story are still there. Buck is still learning to survive in the wild and through his CGI eyes, this film is an entertaining family film with themes of courage and perseverance. There are also some really nice set cinematography when Buck becomes a sled dog for Perrault (Sy) and François (Gee) on a mail delivery route.

John Thornton (played by Harrison Ford) in a scene with ‘Buck’ in The Call of the Wild | 20th Century Studios

The Characters

Buck’s arc is similar to the book starting off as this very spoiled dog living in the south on a plantation. He then sees his wild side in an (honestly) very well done symbol. Using Terry Notary for the motion capture of Buck has been criticized because it made Buck more of a cartoon than anything else. Admittedly, it does feel like a Disney cartoon a lot of the time, however that’s not too much of a bad thing. The last three live-action films, that mostly focused on either the humans or the dogs, were not relatable. This was the issue with the most recent version of The Lion King. The non-cartoon look of the CGI made the film absolutely boring—even with the songs, there was nothing relatable to the film. Adding the big, expressive eyes made Buck more relatable, and the use of CGI ensures that no animals were mistreated. A human could follow Buck and care for him. The audience wants him to survive and feels for him when he’s hurt. Along with that, it allows for Buck to be able to interact with other wild animals authentically and viewers do not have to worry about any animal cruelty.

Dogs and animals aside, Ford is perhaps perfect as Thornton. His Thornton is such a relatable character and one can see why he attaches himself to Buck. Their relationship is perhaps the best part of the film.

John Thornton (played by Harrison Ford) in a scene with ‘Buck’ in The Call of the Wild | 20th Century Studios

The Flaws

The biggest flaw about the film is that it feels a little softened compared to the original brutal version of London’s tale. It does feel fairly corny at times such as when Sy’s character says, “We don’t just carry the mail. We carry lives.” Stevens’ Hal is a very corny villain but he is having fun with it. Sometimes the CGI dog does feel a little too cartoonish, but it feels very Disney. There are some scenes that are a little silly, like a dog pulling off a WWE move. In addition, the relationship between Buck and Thornton is the best part; however it takes two-thirds of the movie for them to have a scene together. This is not a big deal because Buck is still relatable but when the film was marked to include more of their relationship, it was definitely less. However, that is more accurate to the story even though a viewer would think that Ford was in the film more than he was, given the marketing.

Overall

Though safe, the film is a fairly enjoyable retelling the tale. The scenery looks really great at times, and Ford is close to perfect as Thornton. Dog lovers will have their heartstrings pulled.  The CGI dog is not too bad because he is relatable and kids will love him. There are enough moments to keep parents entertained while the kids are watching the cute dog do funny things. It is not Pixar or anything but it is a fine film. London’s themes are there to discuss with kids without scaring them. It is a good film to take kids to, but maybe for a matinee.

Now, what did you think of the film? Let me know in the comments section, and hit me up on social media. The Formal Review is on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Recommendation: MAYBE A MATINEE

About the Author
I’m a simple guy who loves to watch and talk about movies. I go to the movies on holidays, weekends, and will even venture to the theaters by myself. I may have single handedly caused MoviePass to go under with how often I used it. Will you enjoy your time at the movies? Check out my reviews to find out!

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