Film review: “Call of the Wild” swaps wild for mild in new adaptation

Last year, three movies, “A Dog’s Journey,” “A Dog’s Way Home” and “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” were released in theaters. They all fit into the broad and informal category of “the dog story” about a cute canine accompanying people to a happily ever after. Jack London’s original “The Call of the Wild” novel does not fit into that box, but Disney’s film adaptation certainly does.

“The Call of the Wild” is based on London’s 1903 novel about a dog named Buck and his adventures in Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s. It is directed by Chris Sanders (“Lilo & Stitch,” “How to Train Your Dragon”) in his live-action debut. Harrison Ford stars as John Thornton, with Omar Sy and Dan Stevens in supporting roles.

The film’s optimistic tone throughout certifies it as a family movie. The high points are euphoric and the low points are shallow and brief. The pacing is impressive and there are virtually no boring parts in the movie. At 100 minutes, the film is densely packed with terrific acting by the small principal cast.

Casting an aging Ford in such an active role surprised many people when it was first announced, but in “The Call of the Wild,” Ford turns in an emotional performance as a lonely man seeking solace after a tragic series of events. He brings an impressive physicality to the table, which contributes to the film’s riveting action sequences. What is lost, however, is his well-known facial acting due to John Thornton having a beard.

The largest form of criticism by far was the heavy usage of Computer Generated Imagery (CGI). The frozen background, as well as all of the animals in “The Call of the Wild,” were all edited in after shooting in California. Because of this, the film suffers heavily in the characters’ interactions with the elements. In the movie’s Yukon winter, humans barely shiver when exposed to the cold. The styrofoam snow doesn’t bother anyone when it surrounds their bare neck and extremities. As a film released in winter (originally scheduled for Christmas), it’s as if the studio expects the audience to forget how snow feels until they reach the cinema’s parking lot.

There’s something fundamentally wrong about filming a Jack London novel with a cast of entirely animated animals on a soundstage. The sheer perfection of Buck as a dog that is constantly looking and acting the most convenient way for the story is a bit too sweet for a journey of self-discovery. This is Disney, after all. It’s not a long shot to assume that the production company wasn’t too strapped for cash to cover animation. They have oodles of money, a wide audience and a well-known story to adapt, so why not greenlight it?

The distortion of themes from book to film is unnerving, and it’s painfully obvious the Walt Disney Company is aiming to capitalize on a wide audience. The cuteness of the Buck distracts audiences from the unforgiving reality of the original work. The brutal abuse Buck endures in the novel is almost entirely watered down for a PG rating, as well as the treatment and fate of all the other dogs.

“The Call of the Wild” is a passable family movie, but won’t travel any further than the theater’s lobby. While London’s original work stands as one of the great American adventure novels, the 2020 adaptation feels more like an installment in the “Air Bud” franchise.

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