A story of any kind — adaptation, original, or otherwise — that features an animal, usually sparks one specific question: does the animal make it?! To quell this particular concern, the dog in director Chris Sanders’s (How to Train Your Dragon) adaptation of Jack London’s book The Call of the Wild does indeed make it. More than that, the dog at the center of the story evolves to a point of understanding the difference between having a pack and having a master and that one doesn’t always equate to the comfort of the other. For those concerned, this story, and Sanders’s adaptation of it, does put the dog, Buck, into great danger and situations of near-certain death. So be advised that this PG film possesses all the potential danger of another family film, The Neverending Story, it will just be far less traumatic on the whole. Much of this is due to the use of a CG dog in the place of an actual animal, opting for a performance generated by incredible actor and artist Terry Notary (Kong: Skull Island/The Square), which still tricks the mind into believing the danger is real and offering an opportunity to be taken in by the story without fear. The end result can feel a bit of a mixed bag, but one that is, nevertheless, entertaining, heartfelt, and surprisingly emotional.
As in the original, Buck is a 140-pound sweetheart of a dog who’s precocious at best, a pain in the butt at worst. He remains the pet of Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford) and is dog-napped and sold for cash. From here is where things begin to deviate from the original as Michael Green’s (Logan) script streamlines the tale by focusing on Buck’s adventures as a member of a Canadian mail delivery team and his time with the isolated adventurer John Thornton (Harrison Ford). Doing so removes some of the more dated aspects of London’s novel, maintains the adventurous spirit of the tale, and keeps everything moving at a delightful pace.
If Sanders’s adaptation is your first experience with Buck, like this reviewer, then you’re bound to enjoy yourself. The presentation of Buck is about as similar as 1994’s Andre, 1995’s Babe, and 2016’s Keanu wherein the featured canine is given anthropomorphic traits in terms of minute facial expressions, physical reactions, and decision-making. Essentially, they make Buck just about as capable as a human without the character being one. This can push the boundaries of believability, as when Buck manages to convince a character to quit drinking, yet the film takes such great pains up until that moment to showcase Buck’s EQ and IQ that it strangely works, odd as it is, but of the decisions made in adapting Call, making Buck CG is the greatest of all. For one, Sanders has great experience working with computer-generated characters (Toothless in HTTYD and Stitch in Lilo & Stitch) to make them unique yet still relatable and grounded in the creatures audiences know. For two, the set pieces within Call require Buck to be placed in several situations of extreme danger beyond just natural elements like cold, wind, rain, and ice. It’s one thing for Sanders to use a dog on snow, but to convey Buck’s initial confusion about snow and then child-like excitement about flurries is not something a trained animal might do as convincingly. Plus, the scenes of animal-on-animal violence, as well as human-on-animal violence in the film would be incredibly hard to replicate on screen. Universal Pictures’s 2017 release A Dog’s Purpose got into trouble after a dog was recorded being forced into a situation it was terrified to be in. So for all the potential distractions the CG Buck might create, it’s a wiser decision than going with a real animal. Plus, as previously stated, there’s a lot more Sanders can do with Notary’s physical performance translated from the motion-capture suit than an actual canine. In the long run, the average audience is better off as it enables them to get swept up in the story more easily without having to possess concerns over animal abuse or danger.
One downside of the awareness of Buck’s CG form is that sometimes you’re consciously aware it’s Notary’s physical performance driving what the cast reacts to. In this way, you’ll be forgiven for the giggle fit you might succumb to as you imagine the cast and crew engaging with the dot-faced actor as he runs, slides, jumps upon, and otherwise behaves as the canine he portrays. The notion is particular humorous when considering Ford’s Thornton curling up with Buck in various scenes, sweet scenes to convey the deep affection the two lost souls have for each other. Those moments it’s difficult not to think of another cinematic gem in which Tommy Lee Jone’s K shakes Frank the pug in a supposedly serious moment in Men in Black. All of this is a long-winded way of saying that the supporting cast, whether they are more co-stars to Buck, like Ford, or barely a guest spot, like Whitford, take the scenes so seriously that the illusion mostly holds, the seams hiding away forgotten for a time.
A superb score by Oscar-nominated composer John Powell works in tandem with the performances to help convey, primarily, Buck’s thoughts and feelings at any given moment and adds in maintaining the Gold Rush spirit of Call. Powell worked previously with Sanders on the original How to Train Your Dragon, for which his score was nominated in the Academy’s Original Score category, and, while it may be too early to tell if their collaboration will earn Powell another, the music functions within the sequences symbiotically to the point where you’ll be forgiven if you barely notice it while you’re caught up in the emotions of the scenes. Truly, if the production design by Stefan Dechant (Kong: Skull Island) and costume design from Kate Hawley (Crimson Peak) didn’t give off an intrepid vibe, Powell’s score certainly does.
As far as adaptations go, The Call of the Wild does an excellent job of tweaking the source material for a modern age without losing any emotional heft. Is it a touch distracting to watch a CG dog scramble up stairs, slam into walls, and knock over objects — yes. But will you move past it once the real story starts? Absolutely. From that point on, as Buck finds himself in places unknown, you, too, will be swept away, hoping beyond hope that he’ll get home, or, at the very least, find peace. Buck is a good dog, but he’s more than that. He’s an old soul forced to return to his roots and survive. This aspect is where it’s worth noting that 20th Century has moments that really push the PG rating, nothing that’ll cause trauma like the loss of Artax, but certainly some shock and surprise. To assuage any concern, remember: no dogs were harmed in the making of The Call of the Wild. The same may not be said for any Notarys.
In theaters February 21st, 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.