Movie Guru: ‘The Call of the Wild’ could have been a great update on an old classic without the terrible CGI
“The Call of the Wild” almost joins a special group of good old-fashioned adventure movies. It’s almost there, but not quite.
It did have most of the right pieces. The story is a classic, animals perform heroic feats, and Harrison Ford delivers a heartwarming performance. Unfortunately, it also drastically misuses its CGI, particularly with its entirely fake-looking lead character. And that’s the critical mistake: It’s hard to get sucked into the adventure when you keep wondering if you’ve somehow wandered into a video game.
For those not familiar with the novel, “The Call of the Wild” tells the story of Buck, a pampered dog who lives in California in the late 1800s. Unfortunately, he’s kidnapped by unscrupulous traders and taken to Alaska to work as a sled dog. Though he experiences a lot of hardship from both humans and animals, he also makes friends with various humans who need his help to cross the Alaskan wild.
It’s a classic adventure story in every sense of the word, the kind of movie Disney used to make back in the 1950s. And it even sticks with that history: Here, Disney bought the movie as part of its acquisition of 20th Century Fox. Buck has to battle all kinds of dangers without musical numbers or the ability to talk, and you want to cheer him on through all of it. It’s less violent than the book, but there are still plenty of highly intense scenes that will leave you on the edge of your seat.
At least you’ll tense up as long as you don’t look too closely. All of the animals in the movie are CGI, as well as a considerable amount of the scenery. The latter is the lesser of the two evils, though it’s frustrating that no one seems to remember to act like they’re cold. If they had to do it with a green screen, the least the producers could have done is turn down the thermostat.
The biggest problem, though, is the animals. This is especially true of Buck, who emotes with humanlike facial expressions to make up for the fact that we don’t get to hear his thoughts. Sadly, hearing his thoughts would have been far less jarring than watching Buck try to pretend to be a real dog. He doesn’t manage it even for a second, and while that would be fine during the dramatic heroics, it’s painful to watch during the closeups. It’s less a dog and more like an alien who’s taken the form of a dog trying to fool the humans watching him.
Ford, bless him, tries to make up for it. His character has escaped to Alaska to help him deal with his grief, leaving him lonely and in need of Buck himself. The bond between the two is touching, and Ford clearly channels every warm feeling he’s ever had for a canine. If you’ve ever loved an animal, you’ll feel the same way. …
… At least until the CGI looks funny again.
‘The Call of the Wild’
Rated PG for some violence, peril, thematic elements and mild language
Screenplay by Michael Green
Based on the novel by Jack London
Directed by Chris Sanders
Starring Harrison Ford, Karen Gillan, Cara Gee, Dan Stevens, Bradley Whitford, Jean Louisa Kelly, Omar Sy and more
Grade: Two and a half stars out of four
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.