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Review: Human performances bring literary dog film ‘Call of the Wild’ to life

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 20, 2020

Harrison Ford in “The Call of the Wild.” (Twentith Century Fox / Twentith Century Fox)
Harrison Ford in “The Call of the Wild.” (Twentith Century Fox / Twentith Century Fox)
By Katie Walsh Tribune News Service

Much like our furry friends, movies about man’s best friend come in all shapes and sizes: lost dog movies, talking dog movies, military dog movies, reincarnated dog movies. “The Call of the Wild,” directed by Chris Sanders and based on the classic novella by Jack London, is what one might call a literary dog movie even if there is technically no actual dog in it.

The star of “The Call of the Wild,” Buck, is a CGI creation. And it’s only through the technology that his dangerous and harrowing adventures in the Alaskan wilderness during the Gold Rush, as outlined by London, could be realistically brought to the big screen for better or for worse.

Known for his work on the most recent “Planet of the Apes” films (and who thrilled and terrified in an ape-inspired performance art piece in “The Square”), accomplished motion capture performer Terry Notary brings Buck’s movements to life, and it’s a truly skilled performance.

But Buck’s digital nature is noticeable right away. It’s initially off-putting and something you can never quite shake throughout the film. The computer-generated creation doesn’t have the weight, the heat, the feel of a real dog (or any creature for that matter), though the movements, gestures and expressions are accurate.

Fortunately, Buck plays opposite solid human actors who can hold up their end of the tale. After the rambunctious Buck is kidnapped from his comfortable family home and sold as a sled dog in Alaska, he luckily finds himself in the employ of Perrault (Omar Sy), who teaches Buck the way of the sled while delivering mail across the Yukon.

Sy brings a warmth and joy to the role that’s infectious and a necessary element in the otherwise terrifying story. Writer Michael Green has streamlined “The Call of the Wild” into something simpler and more manageable for the film, flattening characters into hero/villain caricatures and relying on cliché both cutesy and otherwise.

A “spirit wolf” guides Buck’s way on the journey, and although he encounters saviors in the form of Perrault and the gruff and craggy John Thornton (Harrison Ford), who serves as the narrator, he also meets some truly nefarious and greedy humans.

Dan Stevens, bedecked in a red plaid three-piece suit and Snidely Whiplash mustache, is especially over the top as the gold-hungry Hal, who drives Buck near death searching for the shiny stuff. What you’re left with is a story that essentially asserts “dogs rule, humans drool,” which is difficult not to argue.

Buck is the hero of the story, saving even the cranky Thornton, played by Ford with his signature gravelly gravitas. The two lost souls, far from home, find each other for an epic Alaskan adventure. They’re not looking for gold, and what they find is more precious than that: grace and a closer connection to the wilderness and their roots. You know, the old call of the wild.

There isn’t much nuance or complexity to be found in “The Call of the Wild,” but it’s an old-fashioned, animal-friendly adventure flick for kids, a modern-day and high-tech “Benji” based on a classic. Although it’s difficult to buy the animated Buck, the human performances save it, proving that even the most realistic technology will never replace the real thing onscreen.

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