Jack London’s 1903 novel, The Call of the Wild, might have the same skeletal structure as Chris Sanders adaptation of the same name but the tonal difference and story changes ensure that this version, the 4th adaptation of London’s novel is a product of its era, a more forgiving beast that seems in awe of its surroundings, much like the Buck we follow across the Yukon who seems more spellbound, rather than fearful of them. This 20th Century Studios film feels like property of parent company Disney, although it was made prior to the studio’s acquisition, and because of that much of the bite of London’s material is sadly missing.
Buck is a St Bernard/Scotch Collie mix, a massive lump of a dog who lives a peaceful life in California. However, he is taken from his home and deposited in the harsh reality of the Yukon during the 19th-century gold rush. Having to learn his place as a sled dog he encounters the best and worst of humanity on his journey.
Serving as Sanders live-action directorial debut after a long and storied career in animation, The Call of the Wild puts his experience to good use as Buck is a completely CGI creation, an animal without the animal, one that would be easy to ruin, leaving an empty animated character in a film trying for a certain level of realism. For the most part, Buck is a delight, a playful spirit, full of character thanks to the motion capture work by stunt co-ordinator Terry Notary. That being said the times when his unique creation impedes the story are rare but significant. Despite impressive attention to detail, the darker elements of Sanders version lack heft, as tension and consequences hold no weight.
When Sanders fixates on the human side he succeeds in telling a story about the ever-changing sense of purpose and belonging. Buck’s interaction with Harrison Ford’s John Thornton is subdued, thanks to a carefully restricted performance by Ford but they say more about these two wayward souls and the fortitude they display than most of the films artificial tension ever could. Be it rescuing a drowning woman, surviving a set of river rapids or outrunning an avalanche, these popcorn instances drag you away from a story that is less about adventure as it is belonging. Buck’s place might be with Omar Sy’s Perrault, his first sled master or with Ford’s John or neither of them, it is the discovery that proves important, not the injected faux wonder.
The choice to play to a populist audience, although a necessity considering the impressive budget of the film ($125-150 million) makes for a rather toothless affair. The darkness here is momentary, the importance of people and the betrayals and abuse they bring is only a fleeting factor in a story that seems in a hurry to reach its end. Buck never feels like the survivor of London’s novel, instead, a gentle tagalong, a bit player in other peoples stories. A lowly but giving presence in a world full of heroes and cartoonish villains, represented here by a hammy Dan Stevens.
The world outside of the story here is one of safety and security and considering the harsh climate, unforgiving people and dark nights, Sanders viewpoint is one of rosy-cheeked denial. It all amounts to a perfectly pleasant family film full of lively action but for anyone willing to pull the veil back on the historical backdrop it suffers from an emptiness that goes way beyond how Buck looks.