For most of the past 100 years, The Call of the Wild has been a mainstay of youth reading lists, originally falling in the grade 4 to 7 range. Over the years, as concerns about violence and cultural sensitivity have increased, the book’s target audience has moved up; today many such lists include the book at the age 14 and up level due to content. Director Chris Sanders has brought the story back to its original audience by softening the story’s harder edges to today’s standards. The result is a beautiful film with a more palatable theme for younger viewers while being entertaining for older viewers as well.
The Call of the Wild tells the story of a massive St. Bernard/Shepard mix named Buck, who finds himself pressed into service as a sled dog after being dognapped from his home in northern California. After adventures, and a few harrowing near-disasters, Buck comes into the life of a grizzled prospector named John Thornton, and eventually discovers the joy of, as the film describes it, becoming his own master; in other words, reverting to the feral state of his wolf ancestors.
The story is beautifully filmed, convincingly portraying the brutal terrain of Alaska. Actors Omar Sy (Jurassic World) and Cara Gee (The Expanse) play Perrault and Françoise, the government employees who deliver mail to rural outposts via dogsled, and they bring a lot of charm to their portion of Buck’s journey. Others in the cast include Dan Stevens (Beauty and the Beast, Downton Abbey), Karen Gillan (Doctor Who, Guardians of the Galaxy), and Colin Woodell (The Originals, The Purge) as a trio of dangerously incompetent would-be prospectors, Bradley Whitford (The West Wing, Get Out) as Buck’s original owner, and Harrison Ford as Thornton, the man who saves Buck’s life and lets him discover his true self while Thornton does the same.
Of special note is an actor who is never actually seen in the film; Terry Notary, a pioneer in the fairly recent field of motion-capture performers, gives a moving and convincing performance as Buck. Notary was previously the unseen performer for Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy and Kong in King Kong: Skull Island, and has choreographed performances for a great number of actors in other films. A big part of the success of the film’s portrayal of Buck, and the other actors’ convincing interactions with the digitally-created dog, can be credited to Notary’s commitment to the role.
There is a lot I could quibble over, a few moments when Buck is too human, incidents that were made too mild for my taste, where things I felt were important to Buck’s story had their dramatic power blunted too much, but ultimately, those objections really come down to admitting that I’m not the target audience for this version. The kids Sanders made it for will love it, and their parents will find it pleasant.
Call of the Wild is in theaters February 21, 2020 and is Rated PG