Aside from the sophisticated CGI used to create the central character, The Call of the Wild is a very old-fashioned movie. It has the feel of those live-action nature adventures that Disney used to put out in the '70s, '80s, and, with White Fang, the early '90s. To be honest, those were never entirely my cup of tea, and yet I found this to be a pleasurable experience. There's something soothing about the film, even when an exciting action sequence is taking place. Everything about it is so good-natured that it becomes relaxing. If you want to drown out the chaos of the world for a little while, here's the exact movie you need.
Based on Jack London's novel, the story follows Buck, a dog who lives in a beautiful home with a judge (Bradley Whitford) and his family. One night, he's stolen and sold at market, where a mail carrier (Omar Sy) purchases him for his sled dog team. It takes some time for Buck to adjust to the workload, but he eventually finds a knack for it, becoming the group's alpha in the process. That gig ends, and he's purchased again, this time by aspiring prospector Hal (Dan Stevens) and his wife Mercedes (Karen Gillan).
Hal mistreats his dogs, and that's where John Thornton (Harrison Ford) steps in. He's a man running from tragedy and looking to find peace in the Yukon. Buck joins him for his expedition, leading to a human/animal friendship that provides both of them with something they need. The two end up in some perilous situations along the way.
The Call of the Wild is very well-directed by Chris Sanders (The Croods, How to Train Your Dragon). He stages the nature-based action scenes effectively, without going overboard. There's a thrilling race to outrun an avalanche, a fight between Buck and another sled dog, and a harrowing trip down white water rapids. Sequences like these are kept mostly realistic, with none of the “let's crank it to eleven” exaggeration that has become commonplace these days. That approach can be appropriate for certain films, but for a story like this, the more authentic route is better. Scenes in which Buck faces danger generate tension because of the sense of realism they contain.
Harrison Ford must have found it strange to act opposite Terry Notary, the actor who portrays Buck via motion capture. (He also did the movements for King Kong in Kong: Skull Island and Groot in Avengers: Endgame). Working alongside a guy in a mo-cap costume pretending to be a dog would be a challenge for anyone. Regardless, Ford works up convincing chemistry with “Buck” that benefits the movie. He's superb playing an emotionally lost guy who finds his way back to some semblance of normalcy thanks to the bond he forms with this animal.
If there's one way in which The Call of the Wild stumbles a bit, it's the frequent anthropomorphism of Buck. Often this is done for comedic purposes. The movie does offer amusement with his hijinks; at the same time, several of those moments destroy the illusion that we're watching a real dog. Facial expressions are a little more comical than a real canine can muster, he understands things that an animal couldn't comprehend (like John's drinking problem), and so on. Breaking that reality isn't a fatal issue, just something that intermittently pulls you out of the story.
Other than that oddity – and wasting Karen Gillan in a small, inconsequential role – The Call of the Wild is a delight. Sanders and screenwriter Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) have put together a terrific all-ages adventure that's got laughs, thrills, and a lot of heart. If you're in the mood for a nice feel-good film that lifts you up and sends you out with a smile, then this is precisely what the doctor ordered.
out of four
The Call of the Wild is rated PG for some violence, peril, thematic elements and mild language. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.