Is it worth $10? Yes
Ah, the great outdoors. The cool, crisp air, the crunch of the snow beneath your feet, the beauty of a sunset beyond the mountains at the end of a perfect day. To be sure, one thing “The Call of the Wild” does well is embrace its location, the beatific Yukon territory of Alaska circa the 1890s.
There’s something off about the film, though, an incongruity that never feels right and gets worse as it goes. It is this: The main character, a boisterous St. Bernard and Scotch Shepherd dog named Buck, is computer-generated. From a production standpoint this is understandable given the things Buck is required to do. From the viewers’ standpoint it doesn’t work. The setting is a raw, unspoiled natural environment, yet we have this insufficiently realistic looking dog romping through it as a hero. Director Chris Sanders’ film is therefore an odd combination of beautifully real and frustratingly fake.
Based on the Jack London novel, Buck begins as the loyal pet of Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford) in California. After misbehaving as dogs do, Buck is forced to sleep outside. He’s dognapped, and taken to Skaguay, Alaska, to be sold to the highest bidder. This is the peak time of the Alaskan gold rush, and Skaguay is considered the gateway to the treasures of the Yukon.
Buck’s first assignment isn’t glamorous: He’s forced to join a team that delivers mail throughout the territory. Humans Francois (Cara Gee) and Perrault (Omar Sy) lead the team and initially place Buck toward the back of the pack, only to soon learn he’s a natural leader. He’s the type of dog who will not necessarily stick up for himself when he’s abused, but he’ll always stand up for others. This makes Buck easy to root for and like, which is important.
Buck later finds his way to the custody of John Thornton (Harrison Ford), a surly old drinker with a harsh past who finds comfort in the dog’s company. It’s here, after nearly an hour, that the movie finds it heart, as John allows Buck to embrace his animal instincts. More importantly, dog lovers finally receive something they can relate to: Human and animal bonding, which is largely missing from the first half of the film. John treats Buck well, talks to him (Buck seems to understand him), and in return Buck looks out for John (he even gets John to stop drinking!). It may be set in the chilly Yukon, but there’s a warmth here that wins you over. What’s more, Ford is so convincing that for a short time you forget you’re watching a dog that isn’t a dog, but rather a CGI creation that behaves in superdog ways.
“The Call of the Wild” may not be the smoothest assemblage of fantasy and reality, but for dog lovers it hits just the right notes to be worth a look.
Did you know? Blink and you’ll miss a cameo from Karen Gillan (“Jumanji,” “Avengers: Endgame”) as a member of a trio that purchases the sled dog team.