It's hard not to believe that The Call of the Wild would have been a better film if they'd simply called up Chloe from Beverly Hills Chihuahua and said "Hey gal, you available?" rather than spending the big bucks to conjure up the unholy mess of a Buck that ends up in this first film to come out of Disney's re-branded 20th Century Studios.
The Call of the Wild stars Harrison Ford, easily its best move and greatest strength, as the grizzled and crusty John Thornton. It's a role tackled previously by some of Hollywood's greates including Clark Gable, Rutger Hauer, and Charlton Heston yet there's an argument that Harrison Ford, despite the lack of an otherwise compelling motion picture, is the best of them all or at least has the potential to be. Based on a 1903 Jack London novel and set in the 1890's Yukon era, The Call of the Wild centers around Ford's grizzled, bottle-dwelling recluse of a Thornton, whose life is changed when he crosses paths with Buck, a beautiful beast of a dog who led a privileged life in California before being sold off as a sled dog.
The Call of the Wild is a film with immense potential and you can just about see that potential in every fame of the film - it simply never, or at least seldom, lives up to that potential. For the kids, there may be enough here to entertain given the fact that most kids may not even figure out that the dog they're watching is a computer-generated creation. For most discerning adults, The Call of the Wild is destined to be an at least modestly disappointing experience that will have them yearning for the days when these types of films featured real animals acting like real animals (and yes, before you start hating, I'm fully aware there's a political argument to be had about animal welfare/protection).
All I'm saying is that real animals are a heck of a lot more entertaining than computer-generated ones in almost every case.
The best scenes in The Call of the Wild occur when Ford is on the big screen alongside Buck. There's something about Ford as an actor - he's capable of making other actors look better and that apparently includes computer-generated ones. Buck feels more alive and vibrant when Ford's around, while every computer-generated move seems obvious whenever Ford's not around.
The real problem with The Call of the Wild is that the story feels as manufactured as does Buck. Between the two, Harrison Ford is left to act impressively in a film that adds up to nothing more than a blip on the cinematic screen. After all, there's a reason that Disney is releasing a film set in the snowy Yukon in February when the last thing many Americans want is to see more snow. They already know that hell's gonna' freeze over before this film's going to make much more than a dent in its rumored $109 million plus production budget.
The Call of the Wild should be an immensely touching film, especially given the power of Ford's performance and Buck's poignant journey.
Unfortunately, it's simply not.
Buck starts off life in the hoity-toity home of a local judge (Bradley Whitford), where we're treated to the early stages of the emotional life of a spoiled dog who seems to not realize he's a dog. Buck's life changes dramatically when he ends up in the Yukon, first with an abusive owner before ending up as part of a dogsled team for the postal delivering duo of Perrault (Omar Sy) and Francoise (Cara Gee). While Buck has always gone solo, he thrives as part of the team until the mail route is terminated and he ends up as the property of the greedy, abusive Hal (Dan Stevens), who has arrived at the Yukon with visions of riches during the Gold Rush years.
Obviously, he eventually finds his way to Thornton with a few twists and turns I won't detail for those newbies unfamiliar with the story.
If we're being honest, The Call of the Wild has never really made for gripping cinema. Despite starring some of Hollywood's greats, mediocrity has ruled the day and this latest version struggles to achieve mediocrity and really only does because Ford commits himself to it and wills it into being a watchable, semi-entertaining effort. This time around, The Call of the Wild is kinder and gentler though its abuse scenes may still be a bit rough for the younger children despite the film's PG rating. It remains to be seen how audiences will respond to the film's tech wizardry, after all most audiences aren't necessarily that discerning and are mainly aiming for escapist entertainment.
The Call of the Wild may be just entertaining enough.
Director Chris Sanders is an animation veteran and clearly gives it a decent shot. Terry Notary, the person behind the computer-generated wizardry, performs as ably as can be expected but the final product ultimately falls woefully short. Because the tech fails to convince, it's hard as a moviegoer to ultimately become invested in Buck's journey and, even more detrimental, to build any sort of emotional bond with an animal that should be "man's best friend" even as he ultimately becomes his own best friend over the course of the film.
Omar Sy and Cara Gee are fine as supporting players, though barely anyone else registers. The Call of the Wild is clearly Harrison Ford's film. Fortunately, Harrison Ford lives up to that responsibility. Janusz Kaminski's lensing for the film is enveloping and immersive, while other tech credits are solid if not particularly remarkable.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic