They do make ’em like they used to
When Jack London’s adventure novel The Call of the Wild was first published in 1903, a month after its serialisation in The Saturday Evening Post, it became an instant classic. And no wonder – London’s story about Buck, a dog stolen from his well-to-do home and sold into servitude as a sled dog in Canada’s frozen Yukon territory in the 1890s, was based on London’s own year in the region during the gold rush. Yet its authenticity was only part of its charm; it was also a vividly told adventure yarn about the triumph of the canine spirit, and an early example of a form of literature told from an animal’s point of view. The first of many film adaptations arrived in 1923, and now, nearly a century later (with many other versions in between), here’s a brand new film based on London’s legendary novel – and what a cracking movie it is.
Although the hero of the novel is undoubtedly Buck, a 140-pound St Bernard/Scottish Collie cross, he has a human companion with whom he spends much of the adventure: John Thornton, a rugged rambling man whom London essentially modelled on himself, and played by a bearded Harrison Ford, in his first leading role since the ill-fated fourth Indiana Jones film. Ford is fantastic; despite his celebrated return to the role of Han Solo in the third Star Wars trilogy, and Deckard in Blade Runner 2049, he hasn’t had a truly memorable role in twenty years (I’m going all the way back to What Lies Beneath), unless you count him gruffly voicing Rooster the dog in The Secret Life of Pets 2. Here, the famously curmudgeonly 77-year-old looks to be having more fun than he has in years, perhaps because he’s mostly sharing the screen with – well, no one, really, unless you count Terry Notary, the actor whose movements provided the motion capture basis for the almost-fully-computer-generated Buck.
It’s true: for the first time in the nearly century-long history of The Call of the Wild adaptations, director Chris Sanders – a long-time Disney animator who directed the deliightfully quirky Lilo and Stitch, before making How to Train Your Dragon and The Croods for DreamWorks – has chosen to make Buck a computer-generated animal, albeit one closely modelled on his own dog, Buckley. It was a bold (and expensive) choice – perhaps inspired by the bad press 2017’s A Dog’s Purpose attracted after footage leaked from the set – and when the first trailer for The Call of the Wild was unleashed in 2019, some corners of the internet mocked the ‘uncanny valley’ effects. Happily, any of the kinks in the earlier footage have been ironed out in the finished film, and Buck is as convincing, lifelike and full of personality as any of the CG critters in Disney’s live action Lion King remake. Whether the credit is due to Buckley, mo-cap marvel Terry Notary, the VFX team, or all three, Buck is easily the most vividly drawn character in the film, despite a supporting cast that includes Omar Sy, Karen Gillan, Bradley Whitford, Dan Stevens and Cara Gee.
Is The Call of the Wild a Good Movie for Kids?
The Call of the Wild is technically being released by Disney following its takeover of 20th Century Fox, and Disney would have been wise to put its brand more prominently on the film. It’s the kind of film I didn’t think they made any more: a rip-roaring, old-fashioned boys’ (and girls’) own adventure, proud of its period setting, devoid of cynicism, snark or anachronistic references, and packed with tense drama and thrilling action, none of which should prove too frightening for any but the youngest (or timidest) of younger viewers.
If you’re looking for the perfect antidote to the kind of films studios are mostly serving up for children these days – your Sonic the Hedgehogs and your Dolittles, to name just two new half term releases – The Call of the Wild is it. With this and Little Women in cinemas at the same time, you’d almost thing the age of The Emoji Movie and Angry Birds was over, and a new era of worthy films for bright young minds had arrived. Alas, I’m afraid I’ll be the lone voice crying in the wilderness, as critics sharpen their poison pens precisely because The Call of the Wild is unapologetically old-fashioned. Or perhaps that’s my cynicism showing?