It goes without saying that there’s a time-honoured tradition in cinema of showcasing the transcendent bond between human and animal. Usually adopting the narrative formula of a troubled individual and/or societal outsider discovering a new lease of life with the help of an interspecies companionship, these stories can take the form of bittersweet comedy-dramas such as Harry & Tonto (1974), the serious and atavistic approach found in the more faithful adaptations of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels, and exercises in outright stupidity like Clint Eastwood’s adventures with Clyde the orangutan in Every Which Way But Loose (1978) and Any Which Way You Can (1980). Whichever the format, the relationships need to be palpable in execution. This is, unfortunately, not the case with Harrison Ford’s tacky and insipid new ‘man’s best friend’ adventure The Call Of The Wild, a film I wish they had instead chosen to entitle The Call Of Nature, as using that idiom would more accurately reflect the film’s resemblance to piss.
The focal star of the debacle at hand is Buck, a plucky St. Bernard who begins the story as the pet of Judge Miller & family in Santa Valley, California. Buck is an affectionate and ostensibly loveable pooch who is nevertheless given to constant boisterousness and mischief, and this sees him on the receiving end of ceaseless scorn and little adoration from the Miller household. Seemingly spending all of his time knocking over ornaments and laying waste to weekend garden feasts, the fact that he does nothing but vex his owners raises the question of why they bother keeping him around in the first place. It’s a question that is never answered with the slightest flicker of exposition either, rendering the authenticity of the film’s emotional heft dead in the water from the outset.
One evening, Buck is abducted by a nefarious man hoping to make a small fortune from selling him to an unpleasant group of traders who proceed to teach Buck ‘the law of the club’, i.e. being subordinate at all times or getting smacked with a billy club. Scenes of animal cruelty are always a challenge to stomach, but the fact that the victim in this instance is an utterly unnatural-looking CGI dog completely negated any emotional punch it is meant to have. The stereotypically weird and nasty mountain men eventually sell Buck on to Perrault & Francoise, a kindly French-Canadian couple who operate a mail dispatch service in the Yukon territory, who train him to serve as a sleigh dog for the business. Over the course of the next trite and uninvolving hour, Buck bonds with his new owners, earns the respect of his fellow dogs by standing up to bullying alpha Huskie and pack leader Spitz, and treats the audience to many a sequence of allegedly heartwarming canine tomfoolery. It is completely by the numbers, and John Powell’s silly, garden variety orchestral score makes it all the more laborious.
Our man Harrison has been narrating everything up to this point but has only appeared sporadically as John Thornton, a troubled and tired older fellow beset by family tragedy, who hopes to start anew by venturing off solo to try his luck in the Klondike Gold Rush. Ford’s performance is easily the best thing about the picture, but in context that’s akin to saying it’s the cleanest piece of sweetcorn in a big sloppy turd. Buck and John cross paths several times thanks to some unsurprisingly lazy narrative developments, and with Buck’s help, John learns that it’s ok to feel sore about past pain and that it isn’t time to give up on life just yet, all that jazz. I wish there were one moment in any of this that started nudging my pathos-meter, but it remained firmly immobile throughout.
This film had the potential to work just fine had it been more faithful to its source material, Jack London’s 1903 adventure novel of the same title, a stark and realistic tale of braving the elements and the inescapable hardships of the human condition. Instead, it dips its toes unevenly in this water, abound with slapstick and corny family-friendly humour, rendering it a confused mess that treads the line somewhere between Jeremiah Johnson and Beethoven. As serviceable as Ford’s performance is, we’re only given brief interludes into his past and the events that formed his character, the film electing to spend the majority of its time having Buck perform triumphant feats that wouldn’t have possible with a genuine dog.
Which brings me onto another problem, the CGI. It sucks. I was under the impression that it isn’t supposed to be a distracting visual effect, something that director Chris Sanders didn’t appear to factor into his storyboards for the project. Yes, I know it’s CGI within a live-action picture, but with a budget that has been reported as being somewhere between $125-$150,000,000, you’d have thought they’d have more than enough funds to tweak it so that it looks somewhat decent. Instead, Buck is the least-crappy looking component in a horribly goofy retinue of computer-generated hounds, an aspect that further diminishes any chance of commuting the profundity of London’s novel to the screen. The book had been subject to previous live-action adaptations in 1923, 1935, 1972 and 1997, all of them making use of actual dogs. The 2020 version is a sorry example of a 21st-century big-budget work drastically overestimating its ability to outdo the past.
As if all of this wasn’t risible enough, we also have a completely superfluous bad guy subplot brought forth by Dan Stevens (an actor I usually like, especially in 2014’s brilliant The Guest) as Hal, an arrogant and cruel sleigh driver who serves as Buck’s interim owner after Perrault & Francoise are forced to relinquish the dog crew. Thornton rescues Buck from Hal’s clutches, and the latter shows up intermittently throughout the film to engage in violent fights with our heroes, firstly as revenge for the theft of Buck and then later because he suspects that Thornton has the drop on some locations in the Yukon that are resplendent with gold, and he wants it all for himself. Or something. It brings absolutely no substance to a film that has no real spirit to begin with, and is merely a cherry on top of a cake made from annoyance. Why they bothered retaining this aspect of the novel whilst thoroughly butchering everything else beats me.
In summary, children will probably enjoy watching the odd-looking doggies as they go a-rollicking around the mountains and do silly things that alternately frustrate and melt the hearts of their human handlers, but that’s about it. I thought it was a boring and embarrassing film that squandered a good concept, one that can’t even be saved by the performance of the well established and more-than-capable Ford. The script is riddled with the oldest cliches in the book, the dogs are rubbish, the performances mostly fall flat and the 100-minute running time felt eternal. As always, you should make up your own mind, but if my two cents counts for anything at all, just stay away and do something else.