Despite their limited acting range, man’s best friend has a long history in the Hollywood spotlight. From my childhood, I have fond memories of dog-centric fare like Beethoven, Homeward Bound, and Air Bud.
The tradition has been to hire well-trained canines along with their handlers, but the latest adaptation of The Call of the Wild takes a different approach. Instead of casting a real-life dog, Disney chose to render a digital Buck from the ground up.
Technology is such that Buck often looks rather convincing, especially the more time we spend with him. But all the special effects in the world can’t disguise a lackluster story.
The premise follows the broad strokes of the Jack London novel upon which it is based, centered around the St. Bernard and Scotch Collie mix known as Buck. We follow him as he’s stolen from his pampered California life with Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford) and shipped up to Alaska during the Gold Rush. After a temporary stint with cruel owners, he finds his way as a sled dog on a mail route with the much kinder Perrault (Omar Sy) and his wife Françoise (Cara Gee). He is able to work his way up to alpha dog until the route is abruptly cancelled and he falls under new ownership by the odious city slicker Hal (Dan Stevens). Not longer after, he is rescued by outdoorsman John Thornton (Harrison Ford).
The most important hurdle for the film is the believability of computer-generated Buck as a substitute for an on-screen flesh-and-blood canine. Save for a few frames here and there, the illusion worked for me. I stopped thinking about whether the dog was “real” about 10 minutes in. I appreciate that Buck appears not just in shadows or darkness, where it’s easy to conceal shoddy rendering, but also in many scenes in broad daylight.
I had similar praise for Disney’s Lion King remake last year. But thankfully, Buck is infinitely more expressive here than the stilted creatures in that production. Animators paid careful attention to all the mannerisms that make dogs so lovable in the first place, so every tail wag and eyebrow raise is calibrated for maximum potency.
The frustration sets in when we realize that director Chris Sanders and his screenwriter Michael Green brought very little new perspective to this tale, which has already been adapted several times for the big screen. Harrison Ford’s husky voiceover narration removes all subtlety from each plot point, which may be helpful for younger viewers but grows tedious for adults.
Ford is prominently portrayed in the film’s poster and trailer, but his character doesn’t become a factor until about an hour into the story. Once Buck and Ford share the screen, the movie’s true potential is unlocked, but it takes multiple training montages and action sequences to get there. More than any other actor in the film, Ford makes us feel that Buck is not only real but a true companion to his lonely prospector character. Whether Buck is burying John’s troublesome bottle of whiskey or stashing John’s hat in his mouth, Ford brings a level of charm and playfulness that recalls the Han Solo-Chewbacca relationship from the original Star Wars trilogy.
If only the movie had spent more time with those two instead of wasting time with throwaway characters like Hal, a villain so comically over-the-top that I think Dan Stevens literally twirls his mustache at one point.
The Call of the Wild is a serviceable update to a well-worn tale, but it doesn’t have enough to make it stand out from the pack.
Coming to theaters this weekend
The Invisible Man, starring Elisabeth Moss and Aldis Hodge, reimagines the classic H.G. Wells novel as a thriller about a woman who is being stalked by an abusive ex-boyfriend that nobody can see.
Playing at Cinema Center is Best International Feature Film Oscar nominee Pain and Glory, starring Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz, about a film director who reflects on the choices he’s made as past and present come crashing down around him.
Also playing at Cinema Center is After Midnight, starring Jeremy Gardner and Brea Grant, about a man whose house is attacked nightly by an unseen creature after his girlfriend suddenly disappears.