*** out of ****
(for some violence, peril, thematic elements, and mild language)
Released: February 21, 2020
Runtime: 100 minutes
Directed by: Chris Sanders
Starring: Harrison Ford, Omar Sy, Dan Stevens, Cara Gee, Karen Gillan, Bradley Whitford, Terry Notary
The latest adaptation of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild is, ostensibly, a chance to tell an old story with new digital wizardry – and that’s exactly what it is, introducing a classic tale to another generation. But that’s not its primary virtue.
The Call of the Wild is a wonderful opportunity to see a bona fide legend back on the big screen, displaying all of the rugged yet soulful (and even plaintive) traits that have made him a Hollywood icon, in what is inevitably one of the few remaining chances to do so. The material itself isn’t always equal to the star that carries it but, because of his greatness, Harrison Ford makes it seem that way (at least when he’s in it).
Following a mostly faithful retelling of London’s 1903 serial – albeit more in structure than in the details, softening the story’s darkest edges while also ditching the problematic Native American savagery of the final act – The Call of the Wild is the anthological journey of Buck, a big burly St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix who goes from California to Alaska en route to discovering that titular yearning deep inside of him. Along the way he’s owned by people both good and cruel while also facing off against the vicious white husky Spitz as he comes into his own.
In his first live action feature, director Chris Sanders (Lilo & Stitch, How To Train Your Dragon) leans into his animation sensibilities, both tonally and literally. Buck is not portrayed by a real dog; rather, he is entirely computer animated (and aided in part by a motion capture performance from gymnast Terry Notary).
From that, Buck’s facial expressions are enhanced in quasi-anthropomorphic ways, as are his actions. He’s often played for bumbling, adoring Beethoven-like laughs, but there are also moments of intense peril and occasional animal abuse that could prove frightening for younger viewers. Even so, these scary interludes and high-risk adventure sequences are usually buoyed by a comedic or triumphant chaser.
Other key animals are also digitally rendered, from the canines in Buck’s sled dog pack to forest dwelling creatures they meet along the way. It’s all comparable in quality to the recent Lion King redux (if not quite as convincing), although the visual effects here are actually tested against the real world, something that Disney’s completely artificial remake didn’t contend with.
Ford’s John Thornton, an old outdoorsman loner, narrates the tale and, in the first half, makes a few brief, serendipitous connections with Buck before becoming Buck’s owner in the second. Michael Green’s script largely adheres to a family-friendly simplicity, but in Thornton an emotional backstory is revealed that involves the tragic death of a son. This puts meat on the bone for Ford’s acting chops, and the film’s second half – which becomes focused largely as a Thornton-and-Buck two-hander – turns into a one-man actor’s showcase.
With a majestic, epic sweep of the Alaskan winter and spring framed by (Spielberg veteran) cinematographer Janusz Kaminski – which is then digitally enhanced in vibrant bucolic splendor – the film’s visual scope is bigger and grander than its narrative ambitions (which are formulaic, complete with Dan Stevens’ cartoonish villain), but Ford elevates it all with his own innate, unshakable integrity.
This is the kind of late career role (and movie) that someone of Ford’s stature could easily phone in, but that kind of check-cashing half-measure isn’t in this actor’s constitution. He imbues Thornton’s internal struggle with absolute conviction, giving the film an emotional sophistication and genuine humanity. There isn’t a single false moment in Ford’s entire performance.
The Call of the Wild is well-crafted if conventional family fare, but at its center is a must-see turn for any Harrison Ford fan. And honestly, who isn’t one?