Contrary to what the trailer would have you believe, Harrison Ford is not the star of The Call of the Wild, a family film from 20th Century Studios coming to theaters February 21st. The real star of the film is Buck, a computer animated St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix. This isn’t really a live-action film either. Think of it more like Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, a mostly animated film with live-action characters. With those rules established, you’ll be better equipped to watch Jack London’s literary classic come to life in the most 21st century way possible.
Approached with the technical and artistic sensibilities of an animated feature, The Call of the Wild is the “Live-action” directorial debut of Chris Sanders, the creator and co-Director of Disney’s Lilo & Stitch and the voice of Experiment 626 himself. His brand leans towards literal underdog stories and The Call of the Wild is no different, depicting a dog’s character journey from an unruly house pet to a being in touch with nature and his ancestral pack. The dogs in the film don’t talk, but they emote a greater range of feelings than an animal actor would be capable of.
Buck is enjoying a carefree existence in his Victorian home in California when he is abducted and transferred to Alaska where dogs of his size are in high demand amidst the gold rush. He learns the cruelty of man along the way before becoming a mail delivery dog and learning what it means to be in a pack. It’s there that he begins to see a great wolf spirit who guides his life to a point where he has to make a choice between being man’s best friend or master of his own destiny.
Buck and all of the dogs are completely computer animated, a fact that is very obvious throughout the entire film. Scenes where Buck interacts with humans take some getting used to as something is off. Be it deadlines or budgetary constraints, it feels like the filmmakers lost the ability to fully render the film or match lighting levels. There’s a scene where Buck gets wet and his fur doesn’t move like a wet dog’s should. It’s nowhere near the uncanny valley level of Cats, but when Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made co-stars a more realistic looking polar bear on Disney+ than this theatrically released film, you have to question why so much of this film comes off looking unrealistic.
The small human cast is packed with recognizable faces and names. Harrison Ford plays John Thornton, a heartbroken character who ventured to the Klondike to live out the dreams of his recently deceased son. While Buck really carries the emotional arc of the film, Ford’s character creates a memorable final act that makes The Call of the Wild an unforgettable experience. The marketing may place a misleading amount of emphasis on Harrison Ford, but when you leave the theater, the scenes of John Thornton and Buck are the ones that stay with you the most.
Omar Sy (X-Men: Days of Future Past) and Cara Gee play a couple running the klondike sled dog team who aid Buck on his journey and represent a transition for him from a pet to a wild animal. Dan Stevens (Beast from Beauty and the Beast) plays the most vicious human in the film in a role that is devoid of any redeeming qualities, a big departure from his previous Disney work. Bradley Whitford (Saving Mr. Banks) and Karen Gillan (Nebula in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) also have bit parts in this adaptation of a legendary novel.
If you can ignore the subpar CG rendering, The Call of the Wild is a beautiful story about an extraordinary dog that will find a place in your heart. It’s a wonderful tale that’s brilliantly translated to the screen with powerful performances by the human actors and animators. The film’s only flaw is the incongruous marriage of the two performances.
I give The Call of the Wild 4 out of 5 rabbit chases.
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.