Where themild things are
A grumpy, growly Harrison Ford, sporting a David Letterman beard, stars alongside a CGI dog in this latest cinematic take on Jack London’s classic—far too nasty to be faithfully adapted for kids—The Call of the Wild.
Shooting for a safe PG, much of the story's violence, against humans and dogs alike, has been removed in favor of a more family-friendly take on the fable of a man and his dog. The dumbing down of the original text might've been forgivable if some of the CGI animal antics weren't so jarringly unrealistic.
Don't get me wrong. I'm in no mood to see real dogs getting hit with clubs and pulling sleds across frozen tundra. But Buck, the cartoon dog, would've been far more suitable for a completely animated CGI affair. In a way, it's the humans who sometimes throw things out of whack. The humans and the CGI beasts don't look like they belong together. But the scenes where it's just humans sitting around, or a bunch of dogs fighting one another off on their own, look OK.
Ford plays John Thornton, a character who showed up much deeper in the novel than he does in the movie. In the novel, Thornton was one of the many men prospecting for gold. In director Chris Sanders' film, Thornton is a grieving loner who has left his wife after the death of their son. He drinks a lot of booze, and when he eventually joins forces with Buck, they discover a gold-filled river while just sort of passing through, and not really seeking it. I, for one, don't see why this change was made, but there you go.
Buck, the big house dog who will eventually lead a sled pulling dog team, is a curious enough technological creation. He doesn't look bad—he just doesn't look and act “real.” He's smart in ways that are complete bullshit, including figuring out that booze is bad for John, and stealing his bottles. Again, this is the stuff of cartoons and not live-action movies.
Another big departure from the novel is the portrayal of Hal, a negative presence in a small part of the novel, but a full-blown villain in the movie. As played by Dan Stevens, with a mustache-twirling bad guy spin, he has an extended stay in the film, and he's a little over-the-top. Karen Gillan might've been fun as his spoiled sister Mercedes had she been given more than five minutes in the movie.
The scenery depicting the Yukon is breathtakingly shot by famed cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, so that's a plus. While most things might look out of place in this movie, the outdoor scenery is never short of gorgeous.
Chewbacca was essentially a big walking dog, so who better than Ford to play a drunk guy who talks to his dog a lot? Ford narrates the movie with his huffy grumble, but his onscreen persona has surprising nuance. (He smiles sometimes!) He makes much of the movie watchable, at times even heartwarming. And then Buck the dog bounces around like Scooby-Doo and kills the moment.
Because the violence has been toned down, and because the film is coming in with a PG rating, I can give the movie a mild recommendation if you are looking to take the kids out for the night. Heck, my parents took me to see that shitty The Wilderness Family flick and low-grade Disney movies like The Apple Dumpling Gang when I was a kid, and I dug the hell out of it. This movie slips into that category of clumsy family fare that will please the kids and allow the parents to watch a movie comfortably knowing that nobody gets fully naked or rips somebody's tongue out. Hey, it might even inspire a nice “Say kids, alcohol is bad for you … don't drink like grouchy Harrison Ford in that movie!” conversation on the ride home.
But as straight-up adult viewing, with no kids, The Call of the Wild probably won't do the trick.