‘The Call of the Wild’ Review: Too Cartoonish to Answer the Call

     February 17, 2020


Other critics and I lamented 2019’s The Lion King for its rictus-faced animals. For all the attention paid to the realism in every blade of grass and every strand of hair, the animals could not emote. Chris Sanders‘ adaptation of The Call of the Wild goes too far in the opposite direction with animals, particularly the lead, that constantly seem like they’re mugging for the camera. Dogs are pretty expressive animals. They’re good at letting you know what you’re thinking. And yet The Call of the Wild always pushes so far that eventually you wonder why the animals just don’t talk if they’re going to be rendered in such broad strokes. This central issue cripples the rest of the picture where the majesty of the natural world is undercut by the CGI creature at the forefront.

Buck is a pampered a dog living in the South during the Yukon Gold Rush. One night, Buck is kidnapped from his owners since strong, muscular dogs like Buck are good for pulling sleds. Buck eventually ends up in Alaska where he’s put on a team belonging to kindly postman Perrault (Omar Sy). However, Buck then comes to follow John Thornton (Harrison Ford), a lonely man looking for adventure and solace following the death of his young son and the dissolution of his marriage. Buck and John form a strong kinship, but their peace is threatened by Hal (Dan Stevens), a murderous dandy who holds John responsible for the loss of a gold claim. Through all this, Buck is pulled closer to the wilderness and away from civilization.


Image via 20th Century Fox

I tend to love adventure stories like this and I’m a big fan of dogs, so The Call of the Wild should be right up my alley, but I never once felt like I was watching something real. The wilderness is untamed and unpredictable, but everything about Buck as a character is guided by a need to make sure the audience knows exactly what he’s feeling and doing at all times. The realness of the setting can’t be properly appreciated when it’s viewed through the eyes of not only a cartoon dog, but a broad interpretation of a real dog. I’m all for using CGI animals (it’s less stress and work on the genuine article), but if Call of the Wild is all about appreciating the natural world, you can’t have your protagonist be so unnatural.

With cartoon Buck at the forefront of the narrative, everything else just feels like an amusement park. I get that this is a PG movie, but even with Janusz Kaminski handling the cinematography, I rarely felt transported to the Yukon or in tune with the spirit of the adventure. More often than not, I felt like I was watching a video game where my avatar was a working dog. Even when the film stops for some establishing shots of the expansive scenery, we quickly snap back to a cartoon dog doing another eye-brow raise or behaving like he’s a person trapped in a dog’s body.


Image via 20th Century Fox

I do have to give a great amount of credit to Ford for not phoning in a performance where the lead character is a cartoon dog. For an old pro, this could have easily felt like a demotion, but Ford plays Thornton with a weariness and devotion that makes the character come alive. The Call of the Wild is not a great vehicle for Ford, but it’s a reminder that he’s an incredibly gifted actor, especially at this late stage of his career where he’s a different kind of performer than the A-list rogue of Indiana Jones and Star Wars. Drama directors should be lining up to cast Ford in their movies, and I wish he was getting better showcases for his talent than having to reprise roles he played in the 80s.

Watching The Call of the Wild, I was frequently reminded of Disney+’s new movie Togo, which is also about a willful sled dog and the friendship he forms with his curmudgeonly master. But whereas Togo always went at the right speed and knew how to balance its story between adorable dog and veteran actor, The Call of the Wild never quite finds the right groove. If you’re looking to entertain your kids for 100 minutes with the story of a sled dog going on an adventure, Togo is the cheaper ticket and the better movie.

Rating: C-


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