Every year or so, we get a family film like The Call of the Wild; the family-friendly dog movie following an adorable pooch on a spirited journey into self-fulfilment.
While recent years have seen the dog-adventure motif become dominated with stories full of religious undertones a la A Dog’s Purpose (2017) and A Dog’s Journey (2019), their impact reinvigorating Christian cinema to a broader audience, Disney/Fox’s enjoyable live-action-mongrel of an adaptation of Jack London’s beloved 20th-century American literary classic, The Call of the Wild, dials up the wholesomeness without feeling completely overbearing.
That said, The Call of the Wild is not without its tonal shortfalls; a side-effect of patchy visuals and disturbing imagery that may prove distressing for young children and animal lovers.
If you thought real-looking lions quoting Shakespeare was off-putting, prepare yourself for a St. Bernard/Scotch Collie throwing stank-eye at Harrison Ford. Told with the same live-action oeuvre as the 2016 remake of The Jungle Book, The Call of the Wild continues an ongoing obsession in Hollywood to perfect animated realism. The timeless misadventures of CGI pooch Buck (Terry Notary – transitioning from the apes in the Planet of the Apes series to dogs), a gentle-giant of a canine whose appetite is as enormous as he is, through the Alaskan wilderness are grand in ambition but diluted by middling effects and over-saturated backdrops. The scenery often appears as though it were blurred to soften some of the harsh outlines brought out in the animation process.
You only need to look at the recent success of Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) to understand the tonal importance of getting animation right. The blue speedster’s first foray into live-action, the trailer of which initially maligned for its sense of realism feeling out of sync with Sonic’s 2D heritage, arguably salvaged thanks to Paramount’s decision to pushback the release and amend the visuals. Existing at the other end of this live-action filmmaking conundrum, The Call of the Wild’s attempt at realism forces the film in some of its grittiest moments – the likes including abuse directed at animals – to feel more distressing than it does anything emotive. This feat is all the more bewildering considering first-time live-action director Chris Sanders’ experience, with the celebrated writer having worked on many of Disney and Dreamworks most celebrated family films. The crux of many of these films involving heartfelt relationships between animals.
Frankly speaking, the film’s visuals aim for the jugular when it should go for the heart.
Yes, animated films have never shied away from confronting storytelling – you only need to look at the slate of films released by Disney in the nineties (most of which crafted by Sanders) to understand this. The reason why those films had connected on an emotional level in their haunting depictions of humanity is thanks to the viewer’s ability to delineate the visual from reality – the effect capturing the tension and the effect of loss while not offending with the imagery. Compare this to the extremely inhumane example of Milo and Otis (1986), where actual animals were mistreated for the sake of filmmaking, and you instead change the experience from emotionally investing to traumatising.
Though not in the same league as Milo and Otis, The Call of Wild creates some moments of uneasiness that not even Harrison Ford’s kind prospector figure, a beacon of light to the downtrodden Buck, can redeem. Ford, who detours from his usual on-screen grit, delivers what is undoubtedly the saving grace of the film; achieving with his performance a charming connection with Buck that provides a much-needed warmth to a film otherwise left on the ice.
With The Call of the Wild, Disney (working under their new Fox-free banner ‘20th Century Studios’) has successfully scarred another generation of children with an almost-real-enough looking depiction of animated animal violence. Not without its appeal, the film’s attempt to recreate a treasured piece of American literature, embedding equal parts humour and heart, generates enough charm to keep its blueprint storytelling howling.
And who knows, CGI could be Hollywood’s solution to never working with animals or children again.
Director: Chris Sanders
Cast: Harrison Ford, Terry Notary, Dan Stevens
Writer: Michael Green (based on The Call of the Wild by Jack London)