by SC Reviewer Shelby Larsen
The 1903 novel by Jack London is a frontier American classic adventure story. The layers of meaning, allegory, fable, philosophical interpretations have flooded scholarship ever since, has given it an ability to be interpreted in different ways. This time, the filmmakers have chosen a path that should best be titled: THE CALL OF THE CUTE. Full disclosure: I am a Dog Person. I have two of my own.
Here, among some lovely California, Alaska, and British Columbia landscapes, lives Buck. He, and all his animal friends and foes are digitalized into Disney-ish anthropomorphic creatures with bright (good) eyes, or glowing (evil) eyes. They, like the human-ish characters, played by real people (Harrison Ford , Bradley Whitford, Dan Stevens, among others) interact on the screen, though one could be forgiven for getting confused about which one is the animal. But never forget, although the film sometimes does, that this is a PG rated version of The Wild, and Buck is, always, a Good Dog.
Buck’s journey, from being a big, good-natured puppy, who tears through the town with abandon, unchecked, to dognapped sled dog, to lead dog, to loyal companion, to Dog who Dances with Wolves, has been airbrushed of many unpleasant, or currently culturally insensitive, moments. Buck’s nature is always noble. From the beginning, his empathy for others, canine or human, is on display. When Buck first encounters John Thornton (Harrison Ford, wild of hair and beard) being thrown out of a saloon for his behavior, Buck brings him his harmonica, forgotten in the fight. (My dog might lick my face in the street, would not gather up my belongings, and he Knows Me).
Buck later drops his share of food in front of another hungry sled dog. (My dog would eat his portion, and grab for anyone else’s). When Thornton drinks too much, Buck pours out the bottle.(Mine would probably drink it himself). Buck attacks only when forced to, in defense of himself or others. (Mine barks at perceived threats, before cowardly retreating). Even when Buck responds to the Call of the Wild, presumably hunting to eat, all that is seen is of him bringing the prey to John Thornton, or to the wolves, somewhat like a grocery run. Nature, red in tooth and claw, does not make an appearance here.
The digitalization/animation (really hard to know what to call it) manages to be detailed, yet never convincingly real. Perhaps that comes from the extensive anthropomorphic take on the animals. Or, perhaps it comes from the melodramatic, and somewhat cheesy turns the story takes. Dan Stevens offers one of the best, if not the best, portrayals of Snidely Whiplash recorded on film. He has a mustache that he seems to be just aching to twirl, as he maniacally pursues John Thornton, whom he believes knows the location of the lost city of gold.
Hal has arrived in Alaska, with his sister, Mercedes, and her weak husband. They buy the dog team from its first owners, who have treated Buck with respect, and go off searching for gold in city slicker clothes, and a Victrola, without any idea of how to drive or treat the dogs. This is Not Good. Thornton rescues Buck from Hal’s overwrought determination to find the gold, including Hal’s intent to drive where the ice is likely to crack. Thornton cuts Buck loose from the sled and pleads with Hal “not to do this to them”. (Why not the other dogs, too, children, or me, may ask).
Thornton and Buck go on to “find a place of peace” to live. Serendipitously , it’s by a stream that has a pretty good amount of gold in it. There, Buck makes the acquaintance of the wolves, a pretty silver female in particular, and life is good. John pans a bit for gold, and meditates, Buck stays out later and later at night, until Hal turns up again, sans dogs, sans sister and husband, and basically sans sanity, and confronts John “who knew where the gold was all along”. Hal kills John, Buck kills Hal, and with John’s last breath he tells Buck, basically, to listen to the call of the wild. Buck does, and he and a pretty silver female wolf are last seen with a bunch of little mixed wolf/dog puppies trotting into nature.
Does this sound like a dog (or man) feeling the call back to his atavistic self? Not so much. But it’s certainly a feel good, warm-hearted movie about a Good Dog. For what it’s worth, this is the first dog movie I have not cried in. That’s just me, though. A man leaving the theater told me he had cried, “because every boy has read Call of the Wild”. I’m not sure how to take that.
Also, underneath all that hair and beard, Harrison Ford is still a Very Good Looking Man.