The Call of the Wild

 

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Jack London’s harsh classic set in the Yukon is roundly disinfected in this semi-animated 

variation.

 
Call of the Wild

Gone to the dogs: Harrison Ford and Terry Notary

 

This fifth big-screen adaptation of Jack London’s classic 1903 novel should really come with a warning. Like Mary Poppins, it’s a live-action-animated hybrid – just as its canine protagonist, Buck, is a mix of St Bernard and Scotch shepherd dog. The trouble with computer-generated imagery, for all the advances in the field, is that one can still tell the difference between a computerised reaction shot and the real thing. The film starts with corn as high as an elephant’s eye and continues to wade through the stuff until the bitter end. For something that is intrinsically loose-knit and devoid of narrative traction, some real animal action might have compensated for the shortfall. After such recent canine escapades as A Dog’s Purpose, A Dog’s Journey, The Art of Racing in the Rain and The Queen’s Corgi, all episodic to a man, this is the real thing – a complete dog.

 

From the opening growl of Harrison Ford’s hokey voice-over, the film brandishes its cheese on its sleeve. This is old-school Walt Disney. From the early scenes of slapstick, the film makes it clear that this is not going to be an authentic reading of London’s brutal narrative of the cruelty of man and nature. It’s almost a surprise that Buck himself doesn’t talk to camera, although he might as well have. In spite of the second unit work in British Columbia, the film never really feels it’s stuck in the feral wastes of Alaska, any more than any of the critters, be they dog, wolf, reindeer or rabbit, seem like living, breathing creatures. We have been spoilt by The Lion King, and in spite of the thousands of animators, this really doesn’t match up. John Powell’s hackneyed score doesn’t help either, so we have to accept that this is a sanitised wildlife adventure aimed at a family audience.

 

Harrison Ford does the best he can as the grizzled, hard-drinking prospector John Thornton – whose alcoholism is cured by Buck’s disapproving antics – while the rest of the cast is given less meat to chew on. Karen Gillan, now an applauded filmmaker in her own right, barely registers at all in a serio-comic cameo, whereas Dan Stevens is required to play a laughable villain straight out of end-of-the-pier panto. Presumably, the real honours must go to Terry Notary, the movement coach who worked as such on War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) and landed a scene-stealing turn in the Palme d'Or-winning The Square the same year. It was he who stood in for Buck – if you can stand on all fours – and spent hours studying the mannerisms of his canine character before running and jumping around the set. If one were going to make an animated version of The Call of the Wild, a better approach may have been stop-motion. Indeed, the director Chris Sanders, who previously brought us the genuine cartoons Lilo & Stitch, How to Train Your Dragon and The Croods, might have taken a leaf out of the book of Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs (2018).

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Harrison Ford, Omar Sy, Dan Stevens, Karen Gillan, Bradley Whitford, Cara Gee, Michael Horse, Jean Louisa Kelly, Colin Woodell, Adam Fergus, Abraham Benrubi.

 

Dir Chris Sanders, Pro Erwin Stoff, Screenplay Michael Green, Ph Janusz Kamiński, Pro Des Stefan Dechant, Ed William Hoy and David Heinz, Music John Powell, Costumes Kate Hawley.

 

3 Arts Entertainment-20th Century Fox/Walt Disney.

99 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 19 February 2020. Cert. PG.