“How do you feel about an adventure, beyond all maps? We could go – you and I – where no one has ever been before,” says Thornton (Harrison Ford) to Buck, a 4-year-old Saint Bernard/Scottish Shepherd mix, as they team up to go on an adventure during the 1898 gold rush in Alaska in the latest big-screen adaptation of Jack London’s classic novel, The Call of the Wild.
The film begins with a voice-over by Ford as Thornton telling the story of Buck, a big-hearted lovable dog who always gets into mischief and is terribly spoiled by his owners in California. Buck’s life gets turned upside down when he’s dognapped and transported to Alaska. As his new and harsh handlers get ready to sell him, Buck meets John Thornton, a grizzled old man who has come to the wilderness to distance himself from a horrible family tragedy.
Buck and Thornton’s first encounter comes as Buck returns Thornton’s harmonica after it slips out of his pocket. Following that, Buck’s sold to be a sled dog for the mail carrier service.
As the rookie of the team of dogs, Buck must learn to adapt to the harshness of the elements and to work with other dogs to transport the sled from town to town. Buck not only quickly becomes the best sled dog of the team, but also starts to hear the call of his wild ancestors as he begins to thrive in the Alaskan wilderness.
As fate would have it, Buck and Thornton’s paths cross again and Thornton ends up saving Buck from certain death. The unlikely pair then team up to travel to a place off the map to experience the adventure of a lifetime.
This film adaptation of The Call of the Wild is a watered-down, softened take on the classic novel that captured the harsh and brutal life in the Yukon during the gold rush. The film’s a light family-friendly adventure that benefits greatly from Harrison Ford’s performance as Thornton and his voiceover work telling Buck’s story.
Ford brings a crusty gruffness but also a vulnerability to Thornton, a man in the twilight of his life who’s using the Yukon to escape from a terrible family tragedy. Ford’s performance opposite a CGI Buck is truly superb and helps the audience believe Buck’s actually sharing the scene with him.
The overuse of CGI in the film to create all the animals and part of the Alaskan Wilderness detracts greatly from the moviegoing experience. It’s glaringly obvious, in particular in the early part of the film, that Buck’s fake. His CGI-enhanced facial expressions and movements aren’t lifelike. This gives the film an unbelievable appearance which denies the audience the ability to become emotionally connected to Buck and his adventures.
This latest version of The Call of the Wild takes the classic story of a dog connecting with his ancestors’ primal ways while dealing with the harsh realities of life in the wilderness and turns it into a lightweight adventure of Buck and his bond with Thornton. That’s not how London intended the story to be interpreted.
MPAA Rating: PG for some violence, peril, thematic elements and mild language
Release Date: February 21, 2020
Running Time: 110 minutes
Directed By: Chris Sanders
Studio: 20th Century Studios