Lectures For Lifelong Learners!

“Birds of Prey” and “Fantasy Island” are also new to Blu-Ray this week.

The Call of the Wild

If a movie like “The Call of the Wild” doesn’t give you a hankering to see the Alaska and the Yukon territory in Canada, nothing will. The vistas in the movie are absolutely gorgeous, from wintery snow-covered mountains to miles of green pastoral landscapes full of trees and clear blue streams. It’s a part of the planet largely untouched by Man, where animals roam free and survive on their natural instincts.

This is where Buck, the CGI dog at the heart of this story, eventually winds up. But “The Call of the Wild,” like any movie worth watching, is not about its destination—it’s about the journey. And what a journey it is, starting in Santa Clara, CA, as the spoiled pet of a county judge (Bradley Whitford), and winding up as the faithful companion of a depressed alcoholic looking to escape from humanity named John Thornton (Harrison Ford) before hearing “the call.” In between he serves other masters, from the kind and positive mail runner Perrault (Omar Sy) to the evil and greedy Hal (Dan Stevens).

It’s on his adventure with Perrault that Buck first hears the faint whispers of “the call.” He goes from a pampered pet to the leader of the pack. He does this by challenging alpha dog Spitz, at first indirectly by being more generous with food and water and not trying to control through fear, then directly in a physical confrontation. The big revelation for Buck is that deep inside of him he has the spirit of a very large Timber Wolf. I guess this goes to show that even animals have spirit animals to guide them.

The scenery and the humans may be real, but the dogs are not and they are a marvel of how far the art of digital rendering has come. We have of course seen Disney do similar things with their digital versions of “The Jungle Book” and “The Lion King.” The big difference is that in those movies the animals talk in English. This takes the edge off so that if anything looks fake, we can remind ourselves that we’re watching wild animals have a conversation in celebrity voices. There is no such safety net with “The Call of the Wild.” The animals need to stand on their own doing all of the barking, growling, and howling that is typical of canines. Even without speaking a human language, the personalities of the dogs come through. The animals—dog and other—are carefully and faithfully rendered to be as photo real as possible. The digital animators had a good challenge with the star of a movie being a digital animal. But no matter the circumstance–weather, lighting, interior or exterior, wet fur or dry fur—they managed to create a dog that looks like it is in its environment and interacting with it. This movie is quite a technical achievement.

But technology will only get us so far. As “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” taught me very well in 1997, a movie can look amazing and have wondrous digital effects, but those mean nothing if the plot sucks. The plot in “The Call of the Wild” does not suck. It’s the story of the personal—if that word can be used to refer to dogs—growth of the main character, Buck. He goes through a lot in the course of the story of “The Call of the Wild” and from it he learns to stop being spoiled and entitled and instead be selfless, kind, compassionate, caring, mature, and responsible. He also learns how to stand up for himself and others and not let bullies win the day. Along the way on this personal journey, he has some amazing outdoor adventures and increasingly hears “the call” better and better. There are hundreds if not thousands of movies about human characters who aren’t this interesting. Buy it.

Also New This Week

Birds Of Prey

I get how “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” is supposed to be the DCEU’s “Deadpool.” It’s violent, loaded with swears, and has a wisecracking merry prankster at its core. Two key differences. The first is that “Deadpool” does not have an obnoxious, overly long title. The second is that Deadpool is sympathetic and I like him. I do not like Harley Quinn, played by Margot Robbie. At least, not as the center of attention and heroine of the story. She’s better in small doses or as part of an ensemble. Put it this way: At one point the movie’s villain Black Mask (Ewan McGregor, treating the scenery like a large stick of gum) smacks Harley across the face and tells her to shut up because he finds her tiresome. This was the highlight of the movie for me—I couldn’t agree more with him.

The laughs don’t work, the violence is too horrific, and the main character does not have any of the fun or likeable traits to endear an audience to her side. The action is mostly unexciting too, suffering from the usual believability problem of having five and a half foot, 120-pound women taking on six-foot-tall, 200-pound men in hand to hand combat. To get around this, the choreography has to be the kind where each of the stuntmen are very accommodating in terms of taking hits and flying around as the script calls for it. It also helps that any of Harley’s assailants in this movie are polite enough to wait one at a time to attack. I might have actually liked this movie a bit more if it took a page from real life and had one of the attackers grab Harley from behind and hold her while his companion wailed on her. It’s the least she deserves after the awful, disproportionate things she does to some of the other characters in this movie.

I will give the movie credit for a fun, well-shot fight scene in a funhouse toward the end. Sure, the accommodations are still there, but at least it’s entertaining. I also liked the car/motorcycle/roller skates chase scene that follows shortly after. It’s exceptionally well done and legitimately exciting. It’s seriously so good that it’s a shame that it’s wasted in this movie and not in something better. Speaking of wastes, Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays The Huntress. Winstead is a very talented actress who can do roles like this in her sleep. I get why she took the role though. The Huntress has a great back story that provides the movie with a clever revenge plot as well as its best side character. The problem is that The Huntress and her story offer way better material for a feature length movie than what we get with Harley Quinn. The Huntress’s movie should have been made, not this one. Skip it.

Fantasy Island

I once had an occasion to watch an episode of the ‘70s and ‘80s television show of “Fantasy Island” in which Mr. Roarke, played by Ricardo Montalban, fulfills the fantasy of a magician by giving him a chance to make his greatest escape. To fulfill this fantasy, Roarke has the island re-create the notorious Devil’s Island prison and has the magician thrown into it. He must escape—there is no calling it quits. The man is in real danger of potentially spending the rest of his life there or getting killed while trying to escape.

This 2020 Blumhouse-produced version of “Fantasy Island” takes such notions from the family-friendly, decidedly PG television show and takes them to their natural, R-rated conclusions. In this movie Roarke is played by Michael Pena. He may not have the cool swagger or classy sophistication of Ricardo Montalban, but let’s face it—who does? What the Montalban and Pena characters do share is the same hard-nosed adhering to the rules of the island. When on it, guests can request anything they wish. However, as most discover, what they get is not what they expect, and there is no backing out—each fantasy must be seen through to its end.

As a movie “Fantasy Island” works in its own dark and twisted way. I couldn’t help but appreciate the grittier, more grounded take on the source material. It is ripe to be exploited in such a way. I don’t regard this take as much different than the darker tone that Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman” movie took with its source material. That movie was a far cry from its TV show. So is “Fantasy Island,” and it works too. Rent it.

More New Releases

“Vivarium,” about a couple looking for the perfect home who find themselves trapped in a mysterious labyrinth-like neighborhood of identical houses, starring Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots, and Jonathan Aris; and “Lazy Susan,” story about a spectacularly unmotivated woman for whom doing nothing is exhausting, starring Sean Hayes, Allison Janney, and Matthew Broderick.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.