‘The Call of the Wild’ Review: “A Sanitized But Delightful Journey”
To feel a call to something that gives you a sense of belonging is one I would consider universal. Whether that call is to make a dream a reality or to accomplish a goal, that need deep inside yourself is undeniable. It’s this need to become who you were meant to be that is at the center of this new adaptation of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. While it is not entirely successful in its storytelling attempts, it is certainly a film that leaves a strong impact.
Directed by Chris Sanders, the film centers on a dog named Buck. A pampered and reckless St. Bernard/Collie mix, the large dog is also a large presence on screen. Eventually, people capture Buck and sell him to strangers, leading to his adventure in the film. Given Sanders’ background in animation, it’s clear why he was chosen for this. The Call of the Wild relies entirely on CGI animals, and the filmmakers are sure to let you know that. Buck himself is portrayed through CGI, which allows for very animated facial expressions and emotions. While the CGI is glaringly obvious most of the time, it’s a testament to the film that it rarely becomes a detriment.
The film portrays Buck to a degree that you empathize with him throughout the different story beats. Because the film is not that fantastical in the sense that the dogs don’t speak, it lays out its story through narration by the great Harrison Ford. Ford acutely retells what we see on screen, giving a voice to whatever emotion Buck is displaying onscreen. The story structure is tight and is a faithful adaptation of London’s book where it matters.
The supporting cast which has the likes of Omar Sy, Dan Stevens, and Cara Gee is also strong enough to carry the film. While Stevens’ antagonist can come off as cheesy and forced, the rest are more or less grounded in reality. Ford gives a genuine and at times heartfelt performance. Most of his scenes are opposite Buck, and the camaraderie they show on the screen is heartwarming. However, there are some awkward VFX in the film that make some things look uncanny. The Call of the Wild can sometimes take you out of the immersion of the story because of this.
Additionally, despite Michael Green’s admirable efforts to adapt London’s book for the screen, the film often feels sanitized. Green seems to reduce the intensity of the darker moments for younger audiences. Because of this, some story beats don’t necessarily hit as hard as they could have. The story of Buck is a dark one in the source text, complete with a few genuinely tense scenes. So it is a bit of a shame that the book’s dark tone is watered down in this final product.
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On a more positive note, the production design on The Call of the Wild is superb. The towns and locales featured heavily in the film are absolutely beautiful to look at. Nature landscapes play a large role in the film, so how they look is of key importance. These beautiful backdrops paired with cinematography by Janusz Kamiński make for beautiful imagery. Everything pops off the screen, and the film captures the essence of exploration and discovery so well. Top that off with well-staged action and you have a movie that succeeds at allowing you to take in every aspect of the journey.
The score by John Powell is one of the biggest technical highlights of the film. The rustic sounds of guitar, banjo, and other such strings bring vitality to the film’s key scenes. The fiddle seems a constant in the score, and all for the better. Powell pours so much heart into the score it is almost a character itself. The score has a refreshing sound that you don’t hear a lot of in film scores. Even considering Powell’s earlier works such as How to Train Your Dragon, his previous collaboration with Sanders, this score creates such a refreshing atmosphere.
Despite his inexperience with live-action, Sanders does a solid job of bringing this story to life. Sure, it helps that he is using computers to give its main character identifiable emotions. However, it turns out he is a terrific director of actors on top of that. He gets great performances out of Ford and Co. and it gives me confidence that he will do even better in future projects. On a side note, a real-life dog was brought on set for reference in lighting and shading for scenes in the film, and that helped a lot. Buck looked absolutely gorgeous in certain scenes where no live-action counterpart was available for comparison.
At times, The Call of the Wild is an uneven adaptation that struggles to find its audience. Certain plot points move at an odd pace and there are cheesy moments galore. And while Buck makes for an engaging character, the CGI is sometimes too distracting for its own good. However, it is hard to ignore the cheers and smiles and genuine reactions it got from my audience at certain story beats. Because of that, I find it hard to call it anything less than a fun time at the movies. – Ernesto Valenzuela
The Call of the Wild is now playing in theaters.
The film stars Harrison Ford, Omar Sy, Dan Stevens, Karen Gillan, and Cara Gee.
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