Harrison Ford Takes the Lead in Jack London Adaptation.
DIRECTED BY: CHRIS SANDERS/2020
The classic Jack London novel, The Call of the Wild, about a dog named Buck gets its latest update in a film directed by Chris Sanders (How to Train Your Dragon, The Croods), that while was originally made for 20th Century Fox, now is being released by Disney following their acquisition of Fox, under the banner 20th Century Studios. In many ways this film is a perfect vehicle for the Disney brand as it will appeal to families whose younger kids are ready for adventure-lite. Older kids and adults…may enjoy it enough, by the end.
Buck is a mix between a St. Bernard and a Scotch Shepherd, and utilizing CGI, the film starts off emphasizing the “bigness” of his St. Bernard side. The first 10 minutes create an almost cartoonish caricature of Buck that threatens to sink the whole film. The CGI is more obvious here, and he is presented more like Beethoven (the dog, not the composer), or Clifford, knocking things over, and sometimes the more modern takes on Scooby-Doo where he is a little mischievous, stealing food from the table and making it into a photograph for laughs. Fortunately, he is kidnapped almost right away and begins his adventure to the Alaskan Yukon. Once the journey begins, the comedic caricature starts to die down, and the film gradually begins to improve exponentially.
There are several legs to Buck’s journey, with each experience stirring his inner “wild beast” which appears visually to Buck in the form of a black wolf. We, the audience, begin to see it as his truer instinct guiding him to make decisions that always seem to be the right ones, like steering the sled team he is a part of into the oncoming avalanche, or how to best challenge a Grizzly Bear in the wild without becoming lunch.
The people Buck meets on the journey consist of some really great people and one or two who aren’t. The first two, Perrault (Omar Sy) and Francoise (Cara Gee) are kind and patient Canadian postal workers, traversing the wild frozen frontier delivering mail. It is here that Buck learns about living in the wild, and working as a team. This is a stark contrast from when he was pampered, living in Judge Miller’s (Bradley Whitford) home in California. Along the way, Buck also meets John Thornton (Harrison Ford), forging an instant bond that will be further realized further in Buck’s travels. Buck also learns early about the cruelty of men wielding big sticks to keep dogs like him in submission.
Lastly, the real villain of the film emerges in the form of Hal (Dan Stevens), a man who is angry and convinced that no one has any right to tell him what to do. This has tragic consequences for Buck’s fellow dogsled team and Hal’s companion Mercedes, played by Karen Gillan in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her performance. Hal is the weakest part of the larger story as he is so underdeveloped as a character. He is simply angry to start, angry throughout, and it leads him to hunt down Buck and John Thornton, once they go off on their adventure, so that he can try to do bad things…in anger. The reason and motivation for any of this is not discussed…at least as to why he starts off that way.
The real point of this film, as is evident in the marketing for the film, is the relationship between Buck and John Thornton. Harrison Ford provides a fresh enough take on his grumpy bear persona, and the story works in the personal loss he has suffered that has led him to this demeanor. He builds enough rapport with Buck to better feel the emotion of the decisions they both must make by the end, which is the point of the story.
Unlike Hal, John’s character is provided a more textured approach to his emotions. Yes, he has suffered, and this has led him to the isolated wilderness of the Yukon, but he is still a decent human being. This is evident not only in how he treats Buck, but also how he interacts with those in town, the indigenous people of the land, and even in how he offers advice to Hal when he and his companions arrive. Harrison Ford is the best part of the film, with the scenery a close second.
The film grows on you, getting stronger throughout its run-time. It is mostly a sanitized family film (a few mild profanities and danger that may scare real young ones), perfectly built for the Disney banner it is now under. The CGI is at times a little distracting as Buck doesn’t seem to always be something tangible and real, especially in the beginning of the film. The Call of the Wild should prove to be a modest success at the box office, all things considered, but that doesn’t mean it is great…just doggone good enough.