The Call of the Wild is like a trip to a zoo where the animals also view the animals from a safe distance.
The main character, the dog Buck, was animated with CGI. The CGI was one of the movie’s strengths, in particular the animal fur. Buck’s slightly cartoonish appearance makes a point that he acts differently, more human, than the other dogs.
However, for this reason, Buck is also the film’s weak point. He is introduced as a rich Californian’s pet dog, who is kidnapped and sold far north as a sled dog during the 1890s Klondike gold rush. Throughout the story, Buck is haunted by a giant wolf spirit, representing his return from pet to beast, the “call of the wild.”
As each trial passes, Buck undergoes no change but is rewarded as if he had. He shows mercy in a fight to the death yet the loser accepts self-exile. Buck chases rabbits as he did in California, but lets it go free when he finally catches one. He pounces onto a human target in three different scenes, but never bites them.
The plot took a few unexpected turns, but between the twists it was easy to see ahead. A canoe rows down the river, of course it goes over a waterfall. Buck wants John Thornton (Harrison Ford) to quit drinking, so of course John finds one last bottle and gives it up willingly.
John was the only human character to be fully developed, because most others did not appear long enough in the story to do so. Perhaps this was done to let the audience understand how Buck feels every time he leaves someone behind.
The best human character in the film was the unnamed man in the red sweater, whose job is to beat new dogs into obedience. This man’s wide eyes, deliberate speech pattern, and fighting stance uniquely indicated he was not talking to a human.
The filmmakers took advantage of four government subsidies to shoot on location in California and the Yukon. The camerawork shows plenty of the landscape, but the music brings to mind beauty and wonder, rather than forbidding and overwhelming.
Harrison Ford narrates in character throughout the film, which forces a human’s perspective on what should be a dog’s story. Nothing was gained from the narration that was not covered a second time in dialogue.
This is a movie you could watch with your kids, but probably not a movie your kids will show their kids one day. The Call of the Wild was released in theaters February 21, 2020.