The classic novel “The Call of the Wild” has been adapted into film several times in the past century. Jack London’s rousing adventure tale of Buck the sled dog and his trials and tribulations in the Gold Rush-era Yukon seems ready-made for the movies.
But, what makes London’s work so compelling is he’s able to tell the story from Buck’s perspective, giving us insight into a dog’s interior life that is tough to pull off on the big screen without going into full blown talking-dog territory — which is not cool anywhere this side of Scooby-Doo territory.
The makers of the latest version of “The Call of the Wild” made the bold decision of making Buck and his canine companions all computer-generated. At first, this seems like a fatal and unnecessary error as we first meet Buck as an overgrown, troublemaking family pet.
While a real dog could have easily filled the role at the beginning of the film, the choice makes more sense when Buck is kidnapped and sent to the harsh Alaskan wilderness where sled dogs are in high demand.
Not only is CGI Buck able to “act” in a way as to make his transformation from pampered pet to rugged loaner believable, getting real dogs to perform in the violent action scenes would have likely resulted in the removal of the “No animals were harmed in the making of this film” disclaimer at the end of the movie.
Buck first joins the sled team of kindly mail route drivers (played by Omar Sy and Cara Gee), where he proves his bravery facing the harsh elements of the frozen north.
Buck then finds himself under the ownership of a cruel prospector, played with such over-the-top villainy by Dan Stevens that all he lacked was a black cape and a mustache to twirl.
Finally, Buck joins up with his human soulmate, a grizzled old hermit named John Thornton (Harrison Ford, who also narrates the movie and can do more grizzled before 6 a.m. than most men do all day).
Buck and John set out to explore the beautiful, uncharted wilderness as equals and Buck becomes torn between the human world and the unchecked freedom of the animal kingdom.
This is the first live-action feature for director Chris Sanders, who is better known for directing animated fare like “The Croods” and “How to Train Your Dragon.”
Here, he delivers the best adaptation of “The Call of the Wild” to date and, while this film does have its share of clinks and sputters, once you are able to move beyond the uncanny valley of computer-animated dogs interacting with real actors, you wind up with a top-shelf family film.
“The Call of the Wild” is rated PG for some violence, peril, thematic elements and mild language.