Personally, I've never read the 1903 Jack London novel "The Call of the Wild," but I've heard about it my entire life. Whether in school or not, I've always heard it's an essential read for someone wanting to transition to more adult novels. There's been plenty of film adaptations of The Call of the Wild, but this is the first in many years and easily one of the biggest budgets. Also, it has Harrison Ford, so that's a huge plus in my book.
Chris Sanders (a huge background in animation, which makes sense) makes his "live-action" directorial debut, and I do say live-action loosely because I'd say 70 percent of the movie is completely animated in some way. Now, as a first-time live-action director, Sanders does an admirable job with the human actors who have to believably interact with these CG animals and backdrops, and for the most part, it works. The special effects vary in quality, but Sanders does a solid job of directing the actors with the fake animals and backdrops to still evoke emotion from some of the more emotional scenes. One scene towards the end involving main character Thornton (Harrison Ford) and the K9 main character was directed so well that it made me tear up a bit. It's certainly a little schmaltzy at times, but it reminded me of a bigger budgeted version of an old school Disney film which I dug so kudos to Sanders for pulling that off.
If you love dogs, and can get past the incredibly fake-looking K9's in the film, then the plot will surely entice you because the main dog Buck sure is a good boy. His story is familiar (considering it's based on a 100-year-old novel, that's not surprising) but it's effective because the movie never detours away from Buck's perspective. At least not for too long. Harrison Ford's John Thornton is more a secondary character and mostly acts as a narrator to Buck's story. Watching Buck adapt, survive, and even build bonds with humans and other animals is done well, if not a little too family-friendly considering how graphic the book gets at times. It also gets a bit too cartoony with the dogs and their expressions almost being too human at times. Dogs can be very expressive, but this movie took it too far. Still, I can't say I wasn't rooting for Buck throughout most of the movie.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
While not in it as much as the marketing makes you believe, Harrison Ford absolutely steals the show. I found his character easily the most believable human in a cast of pretty cartoony ones, but his backstory and the way he bonds with Buck (Mocap'd by Terry Notary) is perfect! It's an old man and his dog story for at least half of it, and that's the half that truly shines. It's a shame that the supporting cast isn't as good as Ford.
Omar Sy plays Buck's first owner, and while good, is a little one-note and doesn't leave as much of an impact as Ford does. Dan Stevens (who I'm a huge fan of) is completely wasted as one of the most cartoony and dumb villains of recent memory. He's Snidely Whiplash levels of goofy and it doesn't help that he's also acting against a cartoon dog and CG environments most of the time. Karen Gillan and Bradley Whitford both have pretty thankless, small, and forgettable roles as well so it's really up to Buck and Ford to carry the film.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
It might be because I saw this in Dolby Cinema at my local AMC, but this movie sounds great! The score is adventurous, bombastic, and somber when it needs to be and has an old school feel to it like the plot itself. It's one of the few soundtracks that I'd say really enhances the scenes to the point where you can forgive some of the visual shortcomings. The sound design is great as well with rushing rapids, snowy avalanches, and gusts of wind really bringing you into the Yukon. Solid stuff!
This is Call of the Wild's biggest fault. Why were the dogs special effects? We've had dog actors in movies for years and years. I get that having dogs do a lot of the dog sledding moments probably wouldn't work with real dogs, but why not have real, trained dogs during the more quiet moments? Even the newest Lady and the Tramp movie had real dogs for when they weren't talking and used CGI when they did. Hell, even the Disney+ movie Togo, which is similar, had a real dog, and that was made with a fraction of the budget.
It doesn't help that the dogs, especially Buck, look too fake and reminded me more of the Scooby-Doo movie or Cats & Dogs more so than an actual dog. It takes you out of the experience when you're watching completely fake-looking animals interact with real humans, and sometimes real environments. All the animals had this weird afterglow to them and their fur never looked quite right, so that really made them stick out. It's not very good, but I will give the film credit here because some of the environments do look very pretty. When the camera pulls back and shows giant vistas and huge lush fields, the special effects look gorgeous. So that is one positive I'll give it. Also, there's a bear in the movie and it looked REAL bad. Don't. Ever. Screw up. A bear. I like bears.
"We Could Go, You And Me, See What's Out There. What Do You Think?"
Genre: Family. Drama. Adventure.
While I for sure had some problems with the film, I can't say I didn't enjoy my time with Buck. Watching this cartoony dog overcome and beat the odds was formulaic but still provided me with enough of that old school adventure feeling that it made me happy as I was walking out of the theater. It's overly goofy, not nearly as violent as the book, and the special effects leave a lot to be desired, but I still had a good time with this version of the classic story.