Disney no doubt appreciated the “Lion King Remake” ethos behind newly-purchased 20th Century Studios’ (formerly Fox) take on “The Call of the Wild.” It’s a story starring a dog, and for the first time in a century of films of this classic Jack London tale, the dog/hero has been digitally rendered, not living and breathing, trained and furry.
But as with that soulless CGI blockbuster “The Lion King,” the larger lesson should be “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”
It’s absolutely valid to attempt a serious, hard-nosed treatment of the oft-sentimentalized and anthropomorphized novel about the house dog turned working dog turned leader of the pack in the Yukon. Harrison Ford signed on for a role that Clark Gable, Rutger Hauer and Ethan Hawke have taken before him.
But this is seriously misguided, and anybody ever inclined to click on a shared youtube video of a cuddly canine will get that within seconds of this computer-generated collie/St. Bernard mix popping up on screen.
No, no dog “was harmed in the making of this picture.” A real dog isn’t dognapped or beaten with a club.
“He was beaten, but he was not broken,” Fords’ grizzled Yukon narrator intones.
No real dog was imperiled by an Alaskan avalanche, attacked by pack dogs and wolves, either. And we can feel that in every single frame.
The story — huge dog Buck has the run of the house and the Santa Clara County town where he’s owned by a local judge (Bradley Whitford). But it’s the Alaskan Gold Rush era (1898). Big dogs bring big bucks in the Yukon.
Buck is nabbed, beaten to keep him in line and taken north, where eventually he becomes a sled dog for the Royal Canadian Mail, where he’s told (Omar Sy is the mailman who talks to his dogs),” We don’t just carry the mail. We carry lives!”
That’s where old prospector Thornton (Ford) first sees him. Buck is half again as big as any dog on the (digital) team, so he’s hard to miss. Thornton?
“I’m not looking for gold,” he grouses. He’s there for the solitude, the reflection and a lot of mourning. If only this rich jerk (Dan Stevens of “Legion”) didn’t get his hands on the dog, hoping to strike it rich in the gold fields. He’s not good enough for the dog, Thornton figures. He’s going to get himself and the dog killed.
The story of “Call of the Wild” is always bent and contorted to add melodrama and Hollywood thrills, so there’s no quibbling about any of that, or the human performances in this.
Maybe you and yours kids won’t mind the dog “acting,” and the occasional unnatural gesture, romp or movement of the animal.
In that case, have at it. I found this a perfectly handsome and literarily defensible mounting of a well-known tale that was far and away the most bloodless version of it. Ever.
MPAA Rating: PG for some violence, peril, thematic elements and mild language
Harrison Ford, Omar Sy, Cara Gee, Dan Stevens, Bradley Whitford and Karen Gillan.
Credits: A 20th Century release.
Running time: 1:40