“The Call of the Wild” Distributed by 20th Century Pictures, 100 Minutes, Rated PG, Released February 21, 2020:
The fourteenth motion picture version of Jack London’s classic adventure tale “The Call of the Wild” is one of the best. First adapted to the screen in 1908 by legendary film pioneer D.W. Griffith as a one-reel silent picture, the story has been remade and reimagined for the movies approximately once every generation, and sometimes more, since the book’s original publication in 1903, in versions long and short.
Told from an animal’s perspective, simultaneously vivid and lyrical, poetic and haunting, London’s classic novella describes the story of Buck, a 140-pound mixture of St. Bernard and Scotch Collie, the pampered and privileged pet of a suburban California county judge. Buck is stolen from his home, transported to the remote Yukon region of then-Canada, and sold into a kind of canine slavery as a sled dog during the Gold Rush of 1899.
The tenderfoot dog eventually toughens to become a valued and coveted companion, but gradually regresses into the more instinctive primal incarnation of his prehistoric ancestors through his interactions with a series of owners both cruel and kind. Still, the dog never quite loses his inherent tendencies of loyalty and affection, particularly when he falls under the ownership and care of the rugged John Thornton, a tough but morally decent northern prospector.
For about the first half of the new film version of the novel, “The Call of the Wild” remains surprisingly--and admirably--accurate to both the spirit and letter London’s novella, with the more brutal interludes either toned down or removed entirely. As the playful and sweet-spirited Buck is broken, beaten, and tamed by his kidnappers, the cruelty of the first beating is thankfully restrained, cleverly depicted through shadows on the wall of a cabin. And even then, the worst of the brutality is represented by impact scorings on the billy club used for the beatings.
Unfortunately, the second half of the movie is more in the spirit of the bland but successful recent canine-based pictures such as “A Dog’s Purpose” and “A Dog’s Journey.” It’s at the halfway point that “Call of the Wild” becomes a fairly standard shaggy dog story...or rather a shaggy Harrison story, with the film’s star Harrison Ford arriving in the narrative full-time, in a more unkempt and hirsute than usual incarnation as John Thornton. Sporting collar-length hair and a full beard, the aging matinee idol Ford somewhat resembles Robert Redford’s title frontiersman in 1972’s “Jeremiah Johnson.”
From the point of Ford’s arrival forward “The Call of the Wild” transitions from Buck’s story into a Harrison Ford picture, with the Thornton character now complete with an affecting back-story involving the tragic death of his beloved adolescent son, a retreat into alcoholism, and a withdrawal from civilization. And despite Ford’s best efforts to pass himself off as a Great White North incarnation of Walter Huston in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” Harrison Ford is Harrison Ford, and from his arrival forward it doesn’t take much imagination to start thinking of the picture as a Han and Chewie kind of thing.
Directed by former Disney animator Chris Sanders from a screenplay adapted from London’s novella by Michael Green, who also wrote the scripts for 2017’s “Logan,” “Blade Runner 2049” and “Murder on the Orient Express,” “The Call of the Wild” is a triumph of computer-generated animation, giving the picture a sort of Once Upon a Time storybook quality, an effort augmented by star Ford’s narration, read from London’s own matchless prose.
The film’s central character, Buck, is a fairly realistic recreation but 100% computer-generated, about as authentic as the baby elephant in Tim Burton’s recent live-action remake of Disney’s classic cartoon “Dumbo,” and at least twice as heart-tugging. As a result of the obvious computer-generated imagery, at no point during the narrative is the viewer fully persuaded that Buck is a flesh-and-blood character--probably a good thing, considering the brutal reality of some of the film’s content.
Still, nobody does this sort of thing as well as the folks at Walt Disney Studios--or rather the Disney-owned 20th Century Pictures. An abridged and truncated version of Jack London’s vivid prose is better than no Jack London at all, and an accurate representation of the final pages of London’s story would likely have landed the picture squarely into R-rated territory and been politically incorrect besides. This new version is miles ahead of, say, the 1935 movie version of the tale, which effectively removed Buck’s story entirely and ultimately became more noteworthy for the scandalous (for the time) off-screen location antics of stars Clark Gable and Loretta Young.
“The Call of the Wild” is receiving approving notices from the critics, including an approval rating of 65% from Rotten Tomatoes and an weighted average of 47% from Metacritic. Rotten Tomatoes notes that “this heartwarming ‘Call of the Wild’ remains a classic story, affectionately retold.” Produced on a budget estimated to have been north of $125 million and released to some 3700 theaters across the United States and Canada (presumably including the Yukon), the film was expected to earn up to $20 million during its opening weekend.
According to literary legend, Jack London spent a year in Canada’s Yukon conducting research into the background of the novella, and used the book’s profits to purchase the vessel on which he wrote his classic 1904 novel “The Sea Wolf.” As an historic note, the new film version of “The Call of the Wild” is the first motion picture using the “20th Century Pictures” logo (minus the “Fox”) since…well, since ”The Call of the Wild” in 1935.
Also featuring spirited performances from Bradley Whitford as Buck’s original California owner, Omar Sy and Cara Gee as a dedicated team of Royal Mail couriers, Michael Horse as a frontier judge, and Dan Stevens as a vengeful novice prospector with gold fever, “The Call of the Wild” is rated PG for violence, peril, thematic elements, and mild language.