Harrison Ford in The Call of the Wild (Photo: Fox)

THE CALL OF THE WILD
★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Chris Sanders
STARS Harrison Ford, Omar Sy

Computer-generated imagery is being utilized at such a rapid rate these days that Hollywood will soon reach the point where it will eagerly employ this mode of effects to show a ball rolling across a floor or a book page being turned. But a line must be drawn somewhere — and preferably one not drawn by a computer.

Using CGI to create Marvel villains? Fine. Employing CGI to illustrate spaceships zipping across the galaxy? Sure. Even turning to CGI to conjure up wartime battles? If they must. But using CGI to create dogs? Them’s fighting words.

The Call of the Wild, the latest screen adaptation of Jack London’s classic novel, is of course not the first film to offer digitized dogs instead of flesh-and blood ones. But it is the most egregious example to date.

As in the novel, the canine star is Buck, a domesticated St. Bernard who’s stolen from his rich owner in California and sold to dealers who provide dogs to prospectors up north in Canada and Alaska. After being beaten by his handler until he complies with all orders, Buck soon finds himself part of the sled team owned by mail carrier Perrault (Omar Sy) and his wife Francoise (Cara Gee). Both humans treat him kindly, but he nevertheless faces cruelty from Spitz, the lead dog on the sled team. It’s in his conflict with Spitz (who’s laughably designed to glower with the intensity of Jafar in the animated version of Aladdin) that allows Buck to start understanding his place in this brave new world that’s filled with ice flows rather than fireplaces.

Throughout his early Northern adventures, Buck keeps running into grizzled John Thornton (Harrison Ford), who has retreated from civilization following a personal tragedy. It’s no surprise that the two eventually bond and become a team, although danger always follows them. Most prominent among their troubles is a supercilious snot named Hal (Dan Stevens), who plans to locate a hidden valley of gold detailed on a rare map. Hal and his companions (Colin Woodell and a wasted Karen Gillan) have no experience in the wild, and whenever anything goes wrong, Hal blames it on the dogs.

CALL OF THE WILD

In London’s novel, Hal’s arrogance costs him his life at an early juncture. But because this is a simplistic film that requires a Major Supervillain so audiences will have somewhere to direct their sneers, Hal is kept alive so he can perennially show up like a bad penny and take potshots at Buck and John at inopportune moments. Constantly sputtering spittle, Hal thus becomes a ridiculous character, although his presence isn’t the worst aspect of this watered-down interpretation.

No, that would be the CGI doggies, Buck most of all. The attendant effects never convince us that Buck is an actual animal, yet even if they were better, the crucial element of identification would still be removed. A story such as this one requires the involvement of a real dog to stir up all the proper emotions, but the filmmakers are more interested in having their canine lead perform amazing feats — if Clark Kent is looking for Krypto the Superdog, he can find him hiding out in this picture. Adding insult to injury, Buck’s movements aren’t even based on a real dog — instead, stuntman Terry Notary served as the motion-capture model.

London’s original text contains many scenes of brutality against both human and animal, and at least some sense of this gritty realness was conveyed in past filmic versions (including the 1935 edition with Clark Gable and the 1972 take starring Charlton Heston). All such violence has been extracted to allow this rendition to cater exclusively to family audiences (the movie’s rated PG). That’s the studio’s right, but between this tame approach and the “No Dogs Allowed” mindset that similarly foiled Snoopy at every turn, The Call of the Wild proves to be a toothless affair.

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