High above the reaches of society, in the middle of the Gold Rush of the 1800s, the world is still a relatively new place. This was a time when we didn’t have computers to scan and map the world right before our eyes. We actually had to go to where we had never explored before, taking us to breathtaking venues that provide one-in-a-lifetime experiences that no computer can truly give you.
Among the populace looking for their future fortunes is Buck, a Saint Bernard dog with a heart of gold, yet no real clue of his own strength. Stolen from his affluent home, Buck is sold off to be a working dog; something he has never done before. As a mail-delivering sled dog, he struggles with his new surroundings. He is unable to really find his place when surrounded by other dogs who have known nothing but the working life as long as they’ve been alive.
But as he spends more time in the wild, Buck starts to tap into a previously unknown wild side within him. He slowly starts to get used to his new place and discovers that he may be more suited for the wilds of nature than the comforts of humanity. And when he joins grizzled prospector John Thornton (Harrison Ford) on an adventure to the furthest edges of the world, Buck will discover what he was truly meant for.
The Call of the Wild is a heartwarming, refreshingly old-fashioned family adventure that stays true to the themes of the book. It strikes a surprising balance between the sheltered youth of today and some of the source material’s darker moments; providing an adaptation that both kids and adults will enjoy. Even if some visual and story choices are questionable, what the film succeeds in is more than enough to make up for that.
There is some issue with the CGI, which at times doesn’t quite strike the right balance between what is real and what isn’t. There are times when it is very clear that most are the latter, to the point where you wonder, “why didn’t they do it as an animated film?” Director Chris Sanders, who co-directed the animated classics Lilo & Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon, takes his first stab at live-action, but with a film that looks and feels more animated in nature.
However, this feeling is eventually swept away when you really start to look at the world around the character of Buck, which for the most part is absolutely stunning. There are more than a handful of shots that will bring a tear to your eye from how colorful and full of life they are. The CGI rendered environments of the Yukon manage to capture the raw beauty of that part of the world, making a real treat for the eyes.
It also becomes easier to watch the CGI dog that portrays our story’s hero. You start to wonder at times why didn’t they use a real dog, but then you start to see why they didn’t. Not only is Buck put into situations that couldn’t be filmed with a real dog, but the emotion he has to give off is something a real dog can’t do either. Buck’s emotions and expressions are more human-like, and it’s these precise reactions that make us care for him even more. We feel like we can connect with him because we clearly understand what he’s feeling and thinking at all times, something a real dog can’t consistently do.
This film is also an impressive showcase for Harrison Ford, who gives one of the most soulful performances of his career. He imbues the character of John Thornton with a level of emotion not seen in many of his other characters. Unlike his return to Star Wars or Blade Runner, his performance here is a much more emotional portrayal of a man broken by life of unfortunate circumstances.
He also impresses with his ability to connect with the CGI Buck. It isn’t easy to form a friendship with a character that technically isn’t there, and even harder to make the audience believe in such a friendship. But Ford manages to make a genuinely emotional connection with the animated creature that really makes us care for both of their characters. They have an irresistible chemistry that makes them a joy to watch when they finally meet up and go on their grand adventure.
But the most entertaining and emotional moments of the film are some of the darker moments. While not as dark as the events in the book, this adaptation still has some parts that feel much more violent than what other family movies today provide. Buck is placed into some rather violent situations, including a fight with another dog who’s level of combat seems only a couple of steps off from just watching a nature documentary.
However, this is actually a good thing. These sequences are just censored enough to capture to true danger of the situation without a traumatizing level of violence. And with a barrage of films that sadly subdue stakes for the sake of not scaring the audience, this movie feels like a much needed return to classic, stakes building drama. We don’t need to have blood-soaked fights, but these moments of suspense are essential to both the attention of the audience and the development of the characters. It’s just nice to have a film that fully embraces this, especially after the stake-less tediums of films like Captain Marvel and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
The Call of the Wild is a breath of fresh air in a world of family movies that feel obligated to paint over the darkness of reality for the sake of holding kids’ hands. It doesn’t always find the right combination of real and CGI, but it does manage to create some truly breathtaking imagery, and a lovable canine character that feels more human than any of the actual human characters, who all do a great job (especially Ford) forming a genuinely touching friendship with him. Whether this will become a classic like the preceding adaptations can only be determined by time, but for those looking for an old-fashioned family adventure, this is definitely one to takes your kids to.