As the newly-minted 20th Century Studios logo opened the Jack London adaptation The Call of the Wild, I didn’t have much in the way of expectation for this CGI dog movie. I ended up pleasantly surprised that this celebration of nature, so much of which is ironically artificial, has a genuine heart and a storyteller’s instinct for simplicity. Many of the landscapes present as VFX plates, and the animals are all digitally rendered, but within the computer-processed hotbox of this Chris Sanders picture, there is an engaging narrative.
The decision to use CG performance capture rather than a real animal for lead dog Buck liberates the animators to depict him as like a bull in a china shop. Buck is a blunt instrument, with no elegance in his movements, careening and crashing around his environs. The treatment of Buck’s great strength makes him out to be some sort of dog superhero. He eventually finds his companion in John Thornton (Harrison Ford). Ford gives a movie-star performance of sincerity and subtlety, jarringly if not hilariously contrasting with the broad, over-the-top villainy of Hal (a wild-eyed and arch Dan Stevens).
Ford also serves as the film’s narrator, his gruff but soulful reading not seeming phoned in. There’s something of the old chestnut of being willing to listen to certain people read the phone book; Ford is certainly more engaged than when studio notes led to his bored-sounding narration in the theatrical cut of Blade Runner. The narration also serves the narrative function of keeping John a presence in the movie, since it takes a significant amount of time for him and Buck to develop their partnership.
Director Chris Sanders, a major creative force in the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy, borrows that series’ composer John Powell, and certain plot elements, such as the courtship between a male animal and an exotic all-white female. Powell, whose music here reaches no transcendent heights as he did when scoring dragonflight, still generates emotion, and appropriately fits the pitter-patter of paws on ground.
At the moment the dog movie as a genre is experiencing a proliferation (A Dog’s Purpose, A Dog’s Journey, A Dog’s Way Home, etc). Thanks to an earnest sentimentality and the not-so-secret weapon Harrison Ford, and despite creating an amusingly baffling thankless role for Karen Gillan, The Call of the Wild feels like a cut above such “dognip”.
(It’s also the second movie I’ve seen this month, after Sonic the Hedgehog, that features a man and his animal sidekick getting into a bar fight.)