Why are canines considered man’s best friend? Why is the influx of dog movies much steadier than that of cats, bunnies, giraffes, or elephants? It’s simple: there’s something understood on a human level in a dog’s expressions, from the mopey look after it has gotten into the trash can to the excitement when we come in from a long day at work. It’s physical, tangible, and real. So, when a film like The Call of the Wild comes along with a CG dog, achieved via motion-capture, at the side of very real human characters, an integral part of that relationship gets lost.Whether it’s capturing the emotions our canine friends seem to express or capturing the joy of an actor working with a real trained animal on set, this adaptation of Jack London’s 1903 novel is a failure in nearly every regard. The film follows Buck, a huge St. Bernard/Scotch Collie after he gets captured from his owner and traded between masters during the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s. He goes from being a sled dog for mailman Perrault (Omar Sy) to one for sadistic Yukon gold digger Hal (Dan Stevens) to a companion and friend to grieving heavy drinker John Thornton (Harrison Ford), all the while having visions of a silent, sleek black wolf that represents − get this − his instinctual call to the wild.
Notably, director Chris Sanders’ first live-action effort (he’s known best for helming Lilo & Stitch and the first How to Train Your Dragon), The Call of the Wild still feels largely animated. Motion-capture artist Terry Notary (a Planet of the Apes and MCU veteran) performed Buck’s movements on set, but the CGI covering him and decorating his surrounding environments are a few grades below what made The Lion King such a technical marvel last year. The close-ups of Buck’s face look okay, but shots of his body from far away lack texture and definition, and his action sequences or quick movements don’t look much better than a well-rendered video game cutscene. Worse yet, the motions with which human characters pet the dog come with virtually no affection, as Notary doesn’t capture the unpredictable spirit and love that comes from a live animal. There’s no room for a charmer like Ford to lose himself in his role if the filmmakers won’t throw him the bone of being next to a real, tail-wagging, joyfully dopey mutt.
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It doesn’t help that Michael Green’s script misses the more feral, complex qualities of London’s original text. Instead, it tells a basic story about what makes dogs such great human companions and then misses that point to right the ship and shoehorn in London’s thesis at the last possible minute. That thesis is damaged when the animators and Notary give the lead dog such obvious human qualities that a real canine would never exhibit. You can feel Buck weighing options and having existential yearnings at multiple points throughout, and that’s a problem when the only thing endearing us to this character is that he’s a good boy who occasionally makes bad messes and eats the human food.
His supposed call to the wild doesn’t feel earned since Buck keeps choosing human missions, like getting inspired by the wonders of mail delivery and curing John’s alcoholism. At one point, Buck hands Perrault a letter that arrived a little too late to make the daily delivery rounds. It would maybe be cute were it a real dog on set, but having this mo-cap mutation do it manufactures the moment in a way that renders it just totally lifeless. It makes a cheesy script even less bearable, especially with Ford narrating the whole thing and forced to essentially take up David Attenborough’s Planet Earth gig during scenes starring only the CG animals in CG environments.
For a film centered so much around the natural world, so little of it actually feels natural. You would think part of the appeal of adapting London in the first place would be staying true to the locations his prose so beautifully describes or having a production brave the elements for those key on-location shots. But alas, it’s easy to tell when these vast outdoor landscapes are actually much smaller, perhaps on a sound stage, than they appear.
As for the performances, Ford does what he can to find the film’s center. The veteran superstar can charm his way through just about any scene unscathed. All of the film’s best moments belong to his signature gruff exterior, soft interior demeanor, even if the special effects hamper his ability to play a physically affectionate dog lover, for fear of ruining the film’s thin illusion. Stevens, on the other hand, hams it up as a cartoonish, two-dimensional villain who opposes Buck and John in such an off-putting, go-for-broke way that any conflict involving him turns into an eye roll.
Across the board, playing things too big is The Call of the Wild’s greatest downfall aside from its crappy special effects. From on overstated musical score to the overly sentimental narration or story beats in general, this is an adaptation aimed right at the heartstrings of dog owners everywhere. Cynical as that may be from a moneymaking standpoint, the ultimate irony in the filmmakers’ failure here is the money they spent creating this disaster. Buck can outrun a pixelated avalanche or dramatically face an alpha sled dog with blue eyes that practically glow, but making him so emotive and superheroic ensures that he’s nothing like the furry friends that audience members will go home to when the lights come up.