A St. Bernard/Scotch Collie dog named Buck is stolen from his lavish home and owner in California and brought to Alaska. As a sled dog and freight hauler, Buck learns how to be part of a pack, supporting the canines that make up his team and growing to lead them. Eventually he comes under the ownership of a lonely man named John Thornton (Harrison Ford). Then Buck meets a pack of wolves and questions whether this is where he is meant to be.
You can understand the movie studio’s choice to use CGI rather than a real dog for ‘The Call of the Wild’. After all computer graphics allow for greater depth or emotion, physical range and control than a real dog would. In fairness, the texture of Buck and way the light bounces off the design is extremely impressive, as are his interactions with Ford (you often find there’s an awkward distance between CGI characters and live actors to make space for the animation, as seen in the recent ‘Detective Pikachu’). But generally one misses the charm and warmth of a real deal.
The problem with dog movies like this is they’re becoming a dime a dozen. In the last few years we’ve had such efforts as ‘A Dog’s Purpose’, its sequel ‘A Dog’s Journey’ and ‘A Dog’s Way Home’, by the same author. There was also ‘Marley & Me’-like ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’ as well as some atrocious features like ‘Show Dogs’, ‘Patrick’ and ‘The Queen’s Corgi’. It’s hard to not approach such blatantly exploitative movies without a hint of cynicism, particularly if you’ve seen all the previous examples (which this reviewer has). We get it already – dogs are cute, it’s sad when they die, and they’re better than people. One need only spend time with a dog rather than sitting in front of a screen showing a dog, to know that.
One could ramble on but the simple fact of the matter is that aside from utilising such an over-worn emotive device, the actual plot of ‘The Call of the Wild’ is just dull. There’s an avalanche and rapids scene thrown in to try to get hearts racing, but the stakes are never there. And there are various issues with the film aside from that. There’s a maniacal gold prospector played by ‘Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens which is cringeworthy in its over-the-top bad guy characterisation. And Karen Gillan, in spite being near the top of the billing, is in the film for about 5 minutes. You’ve got the man in mourning who’s turned to drink, and the getting-better-every-day montage; basically, while original author Jack London (who also penned ‘White Fang’) brought drama, emotion and exhilaration to his novella, it’s totally lacking here. Everything that made the original book great has been brazenly rearranged to make a twee, marketable movie for the masses.
Look, it’s a pleasant enough movie that should make for a fine albeit forgettable family movie outing. What’s frustrating though is it is also insincere, uninspired, and uninspiring.