It’s hard to mess up a dog movie.
Regardless of the storyline, the dialogue or any human acting, the perfect furry, four-legged friend is typically enough to save the day. It may not leave a lasting impression, but the right dog can garner enough “oohs” and “aws” from audiences to justify its existence.
The only way things can go entirely wrong is if the dog isn’t up to par. One way to make sure that’s the case is by replacing a cute and cuddly real-life pup with a CGI monster – and that’s exactly what happened in “The Call of the Wild.”
While it has enough simplistic charm to qualify as a passable children’s movie, Disney’s adaptation of the classic adventure story fails to answer the call, and ends up being quite tame.
Based on Jack London’s 1903 novel, “The Call of the Wild” follows the adventures of Buck, a massive St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix portrayed by motion capture performer Terry Notary. One night, Buck is dog-napped from his lavish California home and shipped north, where he’s sold as a sled dog in the harsh Canadian Yukon. Up north, Buck must fight to survive, spending time with both generous and abusive owners, before he ultimately encounters John Thornton (Harrison Ford).
Together, Buck and John embark on a journey further north, where a mourning John hopes to find peace and closure. For a time, John achieves his goal, but Buck gradually becomes more and more accustomed to the wilderness, setting up a difficult decision when the time comes for John to return south.
The film’s plot has a number of problems. For starters, billing Ford as the leading player can be seen as misleading when he doesn’t fully enter the story until over an hour into the film. Up until that point, Buck’s adventures seem aimless, considering the first hour is simply a glorified sledding montage. It’s not until Buck and John team up that it truly begins to feel as if there’s some semblance of a narrative unfolding.
On top of its directionless first half, you can’t help but feel the Disney-fication of London’s classic novel. It was clear prior to the Disney-Fox merger that this film was going to take a more family-friendly approach, but the end result was something far tamer than its source material. The toned down version steers clear of the story’s grittier moments, tip-toeing around the animal abuse, violence and harsh realities of the wilderness.
For a film so set on embracing nature, it’s shocking how heavily “The Call of the Wild” relies on visual effects. Buck isn’t the only creature who’s digitally created – every animal in the film is a product of CGI. The result is an inauthentic and hollow charade of animals that feels unnatural. Throughout the film, it’s clear no one ever decided how realistic to make the creatures, as Buck alternates between dull, expressionless reactions and displaying overly cartoonish emotions.
“The Call of the Wild” is at its best when it’s focused on Buck and his transition to the wilderness. While there’s no voiceover to provide insight into the canine world, his motivations are abundantly clear as he traverses the Great White North. During this time spent alone with the animals, the film leans into its more adventurous and creative side, unhindered by the realism it tries to balance when humans are on screen.
Ford is decent as the brooding, grizzled Thornton, but the film’s greatest human misfire comes in the form of Dan Stevens’ Hal. Midway through the movie, Stevens enters as a new, abusive owner for Buck, and his performance is nothing short of a caricature. His snarling, vindictive villain is out for revenge and feels more like a stereotypical children’s movie villain out of the early 2000s. For as much flak as the animated dog has gotten, Stevens may actually be the most cartoonish character in the film.
Nevertheless, “The Call of the Wild” is a film aimed to entertain children, and it will accomplish its goal just fine. But for the parents stuck accompanying their kids to the theater, there isn’t much to enjoy.
Star Rating: 2 out of 5
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.