Dog-centric movies command a specific audience like period pieces and war films; it can be difficult for a viewer who is not a fan of the genre to crossover for a specific movie except in outstanding cases. Chris Sanders’ The Call of the Wild is not the be-all, end-all of its genre, nor does it feature an even real on screen dog for much of its running time. But after the last few years of cheesy fare like A Dog’s Purpose, A Dog’s Journey, and A Dog’s Way Home, this new adaptation is head of the pack thanks to its CGI St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix with slightly unsettlingly human eyes. It also doesn’t hurt he’s supported by a craggily yet endearing human companion in Harrison Ford and an affecting script by Michael Green (Murder on the Orient Express, Jungle Cruise).
As has been much publicized, the dog is completely digital and he’s the star of the movie! Buck is a pampered pup who does not fit in to his massive California home, both physically (there’s a very Beethoven-esque montage of him disrupting the entire household in mere seconds) and figuratively. He’s simply “too much” for this domesticated life, and while there is a traumatic sequence in which fate and some unscrupulous sorts conspire to dognap him and sell him north to Alaska, one gets the sense that it’s all for the best.
Not unlike the aforementioned A Dog’s… franchise, Buck passes through several owners, from the sinister overseer who teaches him “the law of club and fang” to charming mail dispatch duo Perrault (Omar Sy) and Françoise (Cara Gee). It is with them that Buck learns how to survive in harsh snowy climate and, more importantly, how to cooperate with other dogs as part of a sled team. Beneath the Northern Lights, guided by his very own wolf spirit Patronus, Buck also begins to hear nature’s primitive call.
Sanders, who makes the leap to live-action after directing such fare as Lilo & Stitch, How to Train Your Dragon, could have tried to compromise the creation of his lead character with a trained dog and then manipulated its expression for the close-ups, but the end result is usually crass and insulting even to the youngest viewers.
Making Buck entirely CGI ensures complete control over animating what is a surprisingly emotional journey. Buck’s every eyebrow furrow, his shifting interactions with other dogs and wolves between cowed and courageous, are all due to motion-capture actor Terry Notary (War for the Planet of the Apes, Kong: Skull Island), making the dog’s emotional state clear within every scene. This movie doesn’t just cross the uncanny valley—it races across the uncanny snow, dives into the uncanny river, and howls its way through the uncanny forest.
The only people who might have suffered are the actors who worked opposite some combination of fellow man and computer technology. But Sy and Gee capture the grumpy warmth of a couple learning to love their rambunctious new addition; and Dan Stevens as a cruel would-be prospector in a three-piece houndstooth suit embodies a vendetta against Buck that wouldn’t be so authentic if there weren’t enough there for Stevens to play off.
But the best relationship in the movie is between Buck and John Thornton (Ford), an outdoorsman who has chosen to distance himself from civilization after it let him down in the form of a son lost to fever and a wife lost to grief. What’s great about The Call of the Wild is that each of Buck’s owners shape him into some mix of feral and feeling, yet the story still builds to the final trial for both him and Thornton: an off-the-map exploration of the Yukon, less for gold than the opportunity to discover something new.
As a PG film whose main audience will be kiddos, the movie handles its deaths deftly—and there are more than a few of both the human and animal variety, poetically rendered as a figure walking off into fog or a lingering shot on the rushing river. These images reinforce how dangerous the wilderness is to domesticated creatures whether they’re two or four-legged, and what Buck and Thornton risk trying to find themselves in the wild.
The nearly two-hour runtime never feels bloated, though some sequences dip more into sentimentality than others. But a commitment to London’s somewhat bleak original ending, ignoring the Hollywood temptation to neatly tie things up (and there was an easy way they could have done so), shows greater respect for its audiences: kids who will have a greater appreciation of where their pets came from, and adults who might be thinking longingly of rushing home to hug their furry family members and not let go for a long time.
Now Natalie Zutter has the odd urge to rewatch Homeward Bound. Talk animal movies with her on Twitter @nataliezutter!