The Call of the Wild is another movie Disney inherited when they bought Fox, but this one they threw some effort into releasing. A family-friendly revision of Jack London’s novel fits The Call of the Wild into Disney’s wheelhouse, so they did not treat this movie like a turd left on their doorstep, and the result is that The Call of the Wild overperformed this weekend, bringing in $24 million (although against a ludicrous $135 million budget, I’m not sure anyone at Disney is cheering). The Call of the Wild features CG-animated dogs mixed with real human performers, and the result is not totally seamless but it’s not terribly distracting, either (I think we’re just becoming inured to this type of unnecessary, photo-real but yet cartoonish CG animation). What is distracting? Knowing that Harrison Ford was interacting with a guy in a mo-cap leotard on set. Watch that clip and then try to stop imagining Harrison Ford rubbing the dog man’s belly, I DARE YOU.
We start out in warm, sunny California, where Buck (performed in motion capture by Terry Notary) is the spoiled pet of a local judge (Bradley Whitford). Buck is too big and gregarious to be a good house dog, though, and one night while left on the porch for bad behavior, Buck is dog-napped by men anxious to sell him as a sled dog in the Yukon, where dogs are valuable for the gold rush. Screenwriter Michael Green takes more cues from Black Beauty than he does Jack London, though, as Buck passes through a string of owners, some kinder than others, as he learns his new life as a sled dog. I know the overall shape of this movie is in the novel, but The Call of the Wild is really not about the human-dog bond, it’s about how wild things are always wild, no matter how tame they seem. Buck certainly learns of his own wild nature in this movie, but it is rooted in a story about how humans treat animals, like Black Beauty, which is a story entirely about how people treat horses, and not what it is to be a horse.
Buck is a very good boy, learning his place on a sled team, and then eventually taking over as the sled team alpha because he is nice to the other dogs, and not mean like Spitz, the original leader. Buck and Spitz fight, and it is honestly awful. The debate rages about using real or CG animals in movies, but there is no way to stage a fight like the one in this movie using real dogs, they WOULD get hurt. CG animals are definitely the lesser of two evils, given how the story is presented here (although they could have just done classic 2D animation, but whatever). There are moments of Wild that really work, and the Buck-Spitz fight is one of them.
What doesn’t work as well is all the sanding down of London’s edges. Dan Stevens shows up as Hal, Buck’s worst, cruelest owner. Stevens plays Hal as a comedy villain, though, going so big it feels like he’s coming in from another movie altogether. Michael Green throws in a hasty line to assure the audience that Hal’s dogs didn’t all die on his ill-fated journey, even though the visual language of the film, directed by Chris Sanders, implies that they totally did. Similarly, the film fades out on Buck’s final, emotional moments with prospector John Thornton (Harrison Ford). I wonder if Wild was supposed to be darker, and it was reshaped to fit into Disney’s family-friendly oeuvre, or if it was always intended to be so wishy-washy when it comes to the darker realities of life. Kids can handle darkness. My generation watched Artax die in the Swamp of Sadness and we’re TOTALLY FINE.
Jack London wrote a lot of stories about people going into the wilderness and dying of being modern humans, but then he wrote The Call of the Wild which is a big metaphor for running into the woods and never returning. (He also wrote one GREAT story about a guy training a dog to fetch dynamite to murder his annoying neighbor.) This Call of the Wild movie isn’t really about any of that, as it has filed down all of London’s sharp edges and generally removes his loathing for humanity. What we’re left with is a sort of effective movie about the power of the human-dog bond. It’s hard to dislike a movie that celebrates that relationship, especially one that does it with such obvious sincerity, but there is also no escaping that The Call of the Wild is a dark and interesting story, and this movie is neither dark nor interesting.