The Call of the Wild (2020) Review
PLENTY OF HEART, BUT NOT ENOUGH SOUL
In the literary world, the infamous “classic” novels are genre staples that speak of perfection within their respective fields of storytelling; recounting an age of the writing world been valued in importance as narrative crafting to be…well…classic in their own rights. With plenty of famous authors and novelist from Jane Austen, to Mark Twain, to Tolkien, to Jules Verne, to Lewis Carroll (and so many others), author Jack London is in amongst this ranking with works. While he has written many novels, short stories, and collections over the years of his life (and lived quite a profound life), London’s two most famous works are his novels…. The Call of the Wild and White Fang. The books, which were published in 1903 and 1906 respectfully, garnished huge and popular praise and (as mentioned) went onto become literary classic, with millions of readers delving into the complexed wilderness of London’s storytelling. In addition, Hollywood eventually took an interest in London’s works and has adapted both The Call of the Wild and White Fang several times, with some of the famous iterations being 1935’s The Call of the Wild and 1991’s White Fang. Now, 20th Century Studios and director Chris Sanders prepare for a new cinematic adaptation of one of Jack London’s classic with the 2020 release of The Call of the Wild. Does this movie find its literary heart and soul within the feature presentation or is all bark and no bite in translating from page to screen?
During the late 19th Century Gold Rush, Buck is a large and rambunctious canine dog without a sense of self-control; living a carefree life of luxury and privilege with the town’s judge, Judge Miller Bradley Whitford) and his family. However, his addiction to mischief has made him quite vulnerable to some, with dognappers set upon the dog to steal him; whisking Buck to the northern Yukon province for profit. Exposed to abusive men and harsh / foreign environment, Buck finally finds his purpose with mail carriers, Perrault (Omar Sy) and Francoise (Cara Gee), who make the big St. Bernard / Scottish Collie part of their sled team, facing a battle for alpha status with their current leader, Spitz, who doesn’t take kindly to the new addition. Learning the lay of the land, Buck becomes a strong sled dog, sharing concern for his teammates and his masters, but when times change and the route is shut down, his finds his way to one John Thornton (Harrison Ford). Searching for some inner peace and purpose after the death of his son, John forms a friendship with Buck, with the duo striving to explore the untamed land before them, soon encountering the wrath of Hal (Dan Stevens), an urban and unexperienced gold hunter. As John and Buck head out to search for gold, Buck soon becomes drawn to the local wildlife and the yearning to hear the call of the wild.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Working at a bookstore, I’ve seeing (rather shelved) and sold to customer plenty of literary classic, with many of them I’ve read personally in my childhood or at least know about them. Jack London’s works, however, is a bit of mystery to me. Of course, I do know of his reputation as an author, but I’ve actually have never read any of his work (sad, but true). Like many, his more recognizable works (i.e. The Call of the Wild and White Fang) are the most familiar to me, but only by name and a vague idea of the two novel’s premises respectfully. Before even known of London’s novel, I actually first remember the two stories from several film adaptations, but (like the books) never actually read them. That being said, I did see the spin-off movie to 1991’s White Fang feature, which was 1994’s White Fang 2: Myth of the White Wolf, which I thought was just okay (nothing to rave about).
This brings me back to talking about The Call of the Wild, a 2020 film adaptation of Jack London’s novel, as I was curious to finally see a film adaptation of London’s famous work. To be honest, I really didn’t hear much about this when it was first announced and was probably overshadowed by a lot of the “movie buzz” announcements. I do remember hearing that actor Harrison Ford was being attached to the project, which did create a little buzz about the movie, but nothing more than that. It wasn’t until I saw the film’s movie trailer that I got my first glimpse into this cinematic endeavor. As mentioned above, I did know of several adaptations of London’s The Call of the Wild narrative, but have actually never seeing them. Although (as I said) I was vaguely familiar the literary material due to knowledge of working at a bookstore for so many years. Thus, I kind of knew what the movie was gonna be about. Judging from the trailer alone, it looked good with plenty of adventure-ish action throughout for a movie and plenty of heart throughout. However, something about the trailer looked off…most notable in the CGI creation of the main character (Buck), which was quite obvious to begin with. Still, I decided to check this movie out and to see what my opinion on it. And what were they? Well, it’s a bit of mix. While the earnest tone and sentiment of adventure and journey is at its core, The Call of the Wild just seems to struggle a bit when it comes to presenting a wholesome and well-rounded project. It’s not a terrible movie (it’s quite enjoyable), but lacks the precision and undertaking that’s required for a project like this.
The Call of the Wild is directed by Chris Sanders, whose previous directorial works include such films like Lilo & Stitch, The Croods, and How to Train Your Dragon. With his background career in animation endeavors (directing, writing, and animation), Sanders makes his live-action theatrical debut in directing this movie. In that regard, he certainly does succeed, with Sanders approaching London’s source material with plenty of well-intended nuances and heart for what he visions the film to be. Despite the more darker and violent nature of London’s novel, Sanders shapes The Call of the Wild to be more of a family friendly feature, with a targeted audience more of the tween age group, which isn’t bad as the novel offers up plenty of adventurous scenes. Thus, the translations of “book to film” will ruffle some feathers out there (more on that below), but Sanders gives the film plenty of heart throughout, which makes Buck’s journey quite compelling to see it unfold and makes his almost virtually impossible to dislike the character (easily rooting for him from start to finish). In addition, Sanders does certainly make the movie tug at the heartstrings at various points, which does have dramatic pieces and has plenty of heartfelt sentimentality. Lastly, the movie (as a whole) is quite straightforward and, despite having some scary moments (for young viewers) as well as some dramatic heart moments, Sanders makes The Call of the Wild easy to digest, with a film that has plenty to say in the way and themes of adventure, purpose, and self-identity / self-worth.
In terms of presentation, The Call of the Wild certainly “looks and feels” appropriately solid; giving the film’s aspect and nuances plenty to work with and adding a sensible texture layer within its background and (whole body) make-up for the feature. In simpler terms, the movie definitely has a good sense of the time era (i.e. the late 19 century) within its setting pieces and locations as well as quality in production design. Plus, the picturesque beauty of nature is vividly capture throughout the movie’s narrative and definitely is almost a character unto its own. Thus, the various department heads of the movie, including Stefan Dechant (production design), Danielle Berman (set decorations), and Kate Hawley (costume designs), should be commended for their efforts in bringing London’s world to life on the silver screen. In addition, the film’s cinematographer (Janusz Kaminski) does deliver some striking cinematic moments in the film, which do offer up some slick viewing experience to behold, while the film’s score, done by John Powell, creates several musical composition pieces that swell the heart strings and have a sense of tenderness and big time adventure throughout.
Unfortunately, The Call of the Wild isn’t quite as polished as it intends to be; aiming higher than what it actual is, and certain parts come off as bit of messy. The main problem that I have with this movie (as do many out there) is the overall CGI visual effects of animating the various animals in the movie, including the main protagonist character, Buck. Of course, the detail utilization of rendering Buck and the other animal creatures of computer-generated visual constructs is appealing, especially since there are so many laws and regulations now enforced to protect the safety of animals of film sets and locations (and for good reason, of course). This makes the filmmakers free of worry of any type of on-set potential animal cruelty and / or endangerment during film and allows the various animal characters in the movie to perform more daring stunt work and movement. In addition, the CGI animals are also given more anamorphic facial expressions and body mobility, with enlarged eyes and characteristic expressions, and tonal body motion. This, of course, gives the animals more time to emote feelings and emotions without every speaking a single line of dialogue as well as giving a more sympathetic understanding to much of the canine dogs throughout.
What’s the downside? Well, personally…. it’s a bit too much and not done the right way. Of course, the immediate criticism of Disney’s 2019 The Lion King comes to mind, which utilized the same CGI visuals to brings it characters to life, but rendering them in a more natural and photorealistic way, with many criticizing the movie for being too “natural geographic” and not as expressive in their faces as to what the 1994 animated classic was able to achieve. However, while 2019’s The Lion King was suppose to be harkening back to an animated feature film (as a live-action remake of sorts), 2020’s The Call of the Wild’s story is rooted in London’s 1903 classic, which is more grounded narrative to be told. Thus, the idea of having a more expressive animal face in a story that seems more real and grounded comes off as a bit wonky and awkward throughout many parts of the film. First off, it’s quite apparent (right from the get-go) that Buck (and the other animals) are CGI rendered, which is mostly due to the cheaply way the animals overall look throughout the film. Some scenes are a bit convincing (almost life-like), but those moments are few and far between, with most animal scenes, including many of Buck’s scenes, to be poorly done and are quite obvious CGI visual creations rather than life and blood beings. To that effect, it renders a lot of the film’s moments to be “moot” and rather unrealistic. I’m not saying that the movie is dull or pointless as they are moments that tug at the heartstrings (as mentioned above), but the whole CGI dogs immediately takes me out of the movie’s story / presentation as if the movie rips out the soul of London’s story. Yes, you do care for Buck and the journey he undergoes, but not as much as if he was portrayed by an actual dog. In addition, the idea to give more expressive faces is a bit goofy because (again) the movie’s narrative is a bit more old-school adventure tale with some serious moments and the rendering animals with expressive facial features and enlarged eyes comes off as a bit cartoon-ish. I get that it will track more kids and families to view the feature, but (again) it just lacks the realism that the picture desperately wants to evoke within London’s classic.
Looking beyond the iffy choices of CGI rendering the film’s animal characters, the movie seems a bit uneven at times, lacking a strong pace in its narrative and come up short in various parts. What do I mean? Well, the first half of the movie is rather long, but is a bit necessary as it explains Buck’s journey and the initial setup for everything. However, the second half seems quite rushed, with many of the story / narrative beats being rather quick and fast. Everything in this portion of the film speedily moves along a rather quick pace that it tries to cram too much into its allotted time; making this part of the movie rather thin, despite it being a lot of the emotional impact to both the characters of Buck and Thornton. Thus, the movie has an imbalanced feeling, which certainly does create several pacing issues and lacking in certain ideas. The story is still there, but I have a feeling (when watching this movie) that a lot of material ended up on the cutting room floor. So, who is to blame? Well, it’s a combination of Sander’s direction or rather inexperience into dealing with a live-action feature film. What he presents is good, but there are a few scenes (some crucial ones) that I felt that Sanders struggles in trying to convey with what he wants from the movie. This also goes back to the overall tone of the movie, which is indeed a earnest one, but has a sort of family friendly appeal, which is strange as the film certainly deals with some heavy drama. Sander’s decision to water down certain events in London’s story is quite clear (and justifiable for a younger audience targeted demographic), but takes a toil on certain pieces that deal with some of more gravitas moments.
Another problem with the movie has to do with the film’s script, which was penned by Michael Green. Despite it being more “in-tuned” with the London’s literary source material (more so than the Clark Gable version of the story), Green’s script seems to water down some of the more intense moments of the fear to make it more kid-friendly approachable. Of course, there are still a few scenes that certainly do speak to London’s original material, but after reading the official synopsis of the literary classic, I can see the differences and those differences are mostly likely altered to make the feature film more accessible to a family friendly audience. Some might like this, while others might not. Personally, I’m somewhere in-between. Again, I have never read London’s novel, but its quite clear how the script deviates (in certain parts) from the original source material. Plus, the rushing of events in the movie (i.e. hastily moving the plot along and skimming over certain bits and pieces) is quite prevalent in Green’s script, which offers up more of a cinematic tale that heavy on its tones, messages, and its presentation and a bit light on its meat. All in all, the script is all bark with a parts that have little bit.
The cast in The Call of the Wild has several recognizable acting talents that populate the movie, but, while some do are relatively good in their performance, most of the characters are rendered in simpler caricatures formats, which (again) is mostly due to the film’s script slimming on several character beats and not enough time to fully develop them. Thus, most of the acting talents on the project are left to physically carry the movie on their own screen presence and not so much on their written character models. Perhaps the most “well-rounded” character in the entire film isn’t human at all, with the character of Buck, a large, gentle St. Bernard / Scotch Collie canine, that acts as the main protagonist of the feature. Given the story being told, Buck’s journey comes full-circle and has the most developed narrative arc of all the characters, which certainly make his tale compelling and quite easily to root for…. even if you’re a dog lover or not. The expressive nature of the face and emotion that is emoted from the canine certainly does speak volumes into Buck’s characteristic, even if it’s a big unrealistic in the CGI creation of the canine. Still, whether you agree with the decision to render Buck as a CGI construct or not, you should at the very least recognize stunt coordinator Terry Notary, known for his motion capture performance in War for the Planet of the Apes, Kong: Skull Island, and Avengers: Infinity War, for his mo-cap work in bringing Buck’s physical movements to life throughout the movie.
Behind Buck, actor Harrison Ford is the more “grounded” human actor in the feature, with his performance of character of John Thornton, a lonesome man that quickly becomes friends with Buck. Ford, known for his roles in the Star Wars franchise and the Indiana Jones franchise as well as Blade Runner and Patriot Games, is quite the seasoned actor and definitely lends credence to the feature’s proceedings; giving Thornton plenty of elderly “gruff” that Ford is quite knowning for these past years (on his project endeavors). And yet, Ford gives the character plenty of heart and likeable earnest within his own personal journey in the film as well as his companionship with Buck. That being said, the character does come halfway through the movie and it seems that the script struggles to find a proper footing for the character a certain time (again, the latter half of film is rather rushed and choppy). Still, Ford does present the movie with a solid and genuine portrayal of Thornton.
The rest of the cast, who are more in supporting players in the film, are okay-ish, with the screen presence being more at the forefront of the movie’s story and not so much their respective characters. This is clearly recognized in the character of Hal, a snooty and weasel-like man who acts as a “villain” for the latter half of the movie. Played by actor Dan Stevens, known for his roles in Downton Abbey, Beauty and the Beast, and Legion, the character is clearly portrayed as an antagonist character, especially one found in a kid-friendly feature film, but comes off as a bit cartoon-ish and goofy to be a sizeable threat. Even Steven’s performance is a bit much and comes off as a villainy caricature, which is disappointing. The rest, including actress Karen Gillian (Doctor Who and Avengers: Endgame) as Hal’s wife, Mercedes, actor Bradley Whitford (The West Wing and Get Out) as Buck’s first owner, Judge Miller, and actor Omar Sy (Inferno and The Untouchables) and actress Cara Gee (Strange Empire and The Expanse) as mail delivery sled riders (Buck’s kind-hearted owners for a time), Perrault and Francoise, fall into the same category with the talent of the actor / actress being okay, but their characters are underdeveloped and could’ve been easily expanded upon.
Jack London’s classic tale of Buck’s journey from pampered pup to courageous canine gets a new cinematic treatment in the movie The Call of the Wild. Director Chris Sanders’s first live action feature takes an adventurous and earnest tone in translating London’s literary story; projecting a family friendly adventure that has plenty of dramatic heart. While the film’s wonky and iffy decisions of CGI effects for the animals isn’t the best (dated and quite obvious) as well as some of the pacing issues and rushed narrative, the movie still manages to find a sobering tale of dog’s tale and a man’s last journey, especially thanks to some picturesque outdoor settings, an adventurous feeling, and moments that will certainly tug on the heart. To me, I thought that this movie was okay. As mentioned above, the intent and story are there, but the overall CGI usage of the various animals took me out of the viewing experience a lot and some of the narrative beats feel a little off-putting. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is an “rent it” as it isn’t a “must see” in theaters, but some might take a glance at this movie when it becomes available on home release. All in all, while it isn’t the exact tone of grit and gristle of Jack London’s adaptation, The Call of the Wild still carries the fundamental heart of the story throughout the movie as a middling family friendly feature (as a well as dog lover out there), it just lacks the true flesh and blood of canine soul of a dog.
3.1 Out of 5 (Rent It)
Released On: February 21st, 2020
Reviewed On: March 1st, 2020
The Call of the Wild is 105 minutes and is rated PG for some violence, peril, thematic elements, and mild language
Nice job! I really appreciate that you really dig into the weeds and give a detailed description.
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I have read Call of the Wild, and the moment I picked up on the “family friendly” vibe of the trailer, I knew this movie would bear very little resemblance to Jack London’s novel. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, if rooting for Buck is easier. I hated how Buck turned out in the book. To me, Call of the Wild was basically the story of a dog slowly driven feral by human stupidity and cruelty. I do agree with you that it would have been better for Lion King to have the expressive CGI and this movie to have the photo-realistic style, but I might be willing to give goofy Buck a try.
Too bad the animals are so distracting! I got that feeling from the trailer and it makes sense that carries through the whole film. There definitely are advantages to using CGI but clearly this film is worse off for it.