The Call of the Wild (2020)

It’s remarkable how one flaw can nearly capsize an entire movie.  On one hand, The Call of the Wild succeeds as an it’ll-do adventure flick for kids.  It has cute pups, sweeping Yukon vistas, and a healthy dose of PG-rated peril.  Plus, we get Harrison Ford, whose voice has taken on the well-worn reliability of a trusty old saddle.  That’s great and all, but the filmmakers make the same damn mistake that sent Cats spiraling to the ocean floor:  Overcooked CGI makes everything look profoundly fake, serving as a constant reminder we’re watching something that was rendered on somebody’s iMac.  It doesn’t completely kill the movie, but it does reduce the whole thing to The Call of the Mild.

Liberally adapted from Jack London’s classic novel, the story follows Buck, a rascally St. Bernard mix.  Set during the Klondike Gold Rush, Buck gets abducted from his posh city life and sold to a mail carrier in the Yukon.  He becomes a sled dog, and slowly works his way up the pack.  Throughout his travels, Buck runs across an old woodsman named John Thornton (Harrison Ford), and the two form an unspeakable bond.  Eventually, both man and dog realize that their greater destiny lies together, somewhere beyond the gorgeous frontier. 

This could’ve and should’ve been 100 minutes of no-fuss entertainment.  The story moves at a decent clip, and the strength and infectious energy of London’s source novel translate to the screen. Ford narrates from start to finish, and his iconic voice drapes over the film like a homemade quilt.  He and Buck occupy much of the screen time, and Ford’s star power elevates Wild considerably.

Let’s talk about the shaggy dog in the room.  The decision to digitally anthropomorphize Buck actually fails the film on two levels.  He doesn’t look real–not for one single frame of the movie.  And that must’ve been the point:  Buck’s cuteness is cartoonish–and therefore marketable–and he emotes in a way that an actual dog never could.  His presence in the story ultimately rings hollow, diluting suspense during the action scenes and undermining the drama everywhere else.  

Now that I’ve backhanded this movie in the face, let me qualify that criticism a little bit.  The Call of the Wild is still pretty decent.  It provides tidy, smut-free escapism for the pre-teen set.  With a disaster like Cats, the crappy CGI was just another rotten apple in a barrel that was already doomed.  Here, it’s just a noticeable blemish on an otherwise acceptable little film.  That makes all the difference in the world.  

100 min.  PG.

 

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Author: Todd Wofford

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