Courtesy of 20th Century Studios (Disney)
I could list off over a dozen films in the past twenty years from “Eight Below” to Disney+’s most recent “Togo'' that were about dogs and featured real dogs. In the new live action adaptation of Jack London’s iconic “The Call of The Wild,” the filmmakers try and fail to give a CGI leading canine the look and feel of a real pooch, and it strips the film of any emotional weight. Especially as you watch a scruffy Harrison Ford try to play fetch and pet the dog. In the end, I bet it cost 20th Century Studios (the first film released under Disney’s new regime) more to digitally create the dogs than it would have to use the real thing. (Not to mention, every Jack London film adaptation to date has featured real dogs).
But it’s not just the dog though, “The Call of the Wild” is slow, boring, and practically emotionless. Taking the gorgeous landscapes of London’s novel and turning it into something utterly unrecognizable: a digital playground with choppy looking green screen effects.
Buck (motion-captured performed by Terry Notary of “The Square”) is a very big half-Saint Bernard, half Scotch Shepherd dog owned by a wily Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford who is in the movie for approximately five seconds). After destroying a coveted Miller family reunion, Buck is left to sleep outside and is taken by a ring of dognappers who ship him off to Alaska during the Gold Rush-era.
Whereas his previous owners were kind and gentle, Buck - after being transported to his new home - sees the true cruelty in humans: one beats him with a club, but he also comes into contact with new masters meant to guide him along. From the couple (Omar Sy and Care Gee) who purchase Buck and train him to be a sled dog, to the vile and mustache twirling Charles (an annoying Dan Stevens) to his final master, John Thronton (Ford).
Like all of London’s novels, “The Call of the Wild” is ideally about nature vs civilization, but there’s something inherently wrong when, an hour into a family film based on a popular novel, it’s hard to grasp your mind on what the film is actually about. Prospecting gold? Buck’s transformation from house pet to full blown beast? Thronton dealing with his grief? It begs the question of what transpired inside Micheal Green’s (“Blade Runner 2049”) head as he was penning the script. In this version, it would seem director Chris Sanders was more concerned about getting the CGI effects polished than he was the story. And it shows.
Speaking of CGI, there’s a boatload of it. In fact, there’s too much. Every single animal you’ll see on screen is fake and not once is the audience going to buy into it. Steven Spielberg always said our connections with creatures that don’t exist on screen comes from the eyes. Well the animators, try as they might, never capture the dog’s traits properly and fail to give us anything to root for. The film’s production design, too, looked like it was rushed just to make the release date and then covered with fake snow for good measure. It almost makes you wonder if Disney saw the film after its acquisition and decided to cut their losses. The film literally looks like it was plopped right in the center of a soundstage. Ford tries his best to act against the motion captured performances, but the narrative bounces around so frequently that Sanders never quite gets a lid on things and those tender moments are squandered. As for Stevens, well let’s just say, he needs to choose better roles.
It’s anyone’s guess why in 2020, filmmakers believe CGI can replace genuine, caring, animals (hell, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” had a real dog). Give the animators and special effects crew credit for pushing the boundaries and limitations of technology as far as they could, however, the lazy and digitized approach to the narrative leaves this “Call of the Wild” out in the cold.