The new adaptation of Jack London's 1903 adventure novel The Call of the Wild stars a hirsute Harrison Ford and a computer-generated doggo as they do stuff like pan for gold and savor the majesty of the Yukon Territories, circa 1899. It is a family film, rated PG for mild violence, peril and thematic elements (animal abuse?), and opens Friday in wide release. It's kind of a War Horse-style narrative in that its central storyline belongs to a non-speaking animal, and it is — let there be no doubt — a heck of lot better and more satisfying than The Lion King.
20th Century Studios describes the adaptation as a live-action/animation hybrid. Buck, the 140-pound St. Bernard-Scotch Collie at the story's center, is every bit as photorealistic as the savannah felines of the Disney remake last year. But mercifully, he behaves exactly like a big, silly dog would behave. He is not voiced by an A-lister and rarely interacts with other animals in the way that humans would. He is fun to watch precisely because he is a big, silly dog.
(Allow us to reiterate parenthetically that Jon Favreau's Lion King was a cruel and joyless reboot of a classic. With its ultra-realistic animation, it managed to drain the magic and fun out of every character and song, and it exposed the pure profit motive of Disney's exhaustive, rapacious live-action reboot project. Boo!!!)
The Call of the Wild faithfully adheres to London's work. The short novel was first serialized in the Saturday Evening Post and it retains, in this adaptation, the pacing of an episodic story. Buck is first introduced as the rambunctious pet of a judge (Bradley Whitford) in California's Santa Clara Valley. A few opening scenes portray the joys and hardships of domesticated life for a dog of Buck's size and power. He is soon stolen in the dead of night and shipped Northwest, where he is conscripted into service with two Canadian mail carriers (Omar Sy and Cara Gee), who deliver mail to remote Yukon outposts via dog sled. Buck begins to relish the great outdoors and takes pride in the mastery of his work, but after the mail route is closed with the dawn of the telegraph, he is sold to an arrogant, wealthy prospector (Dan Stevens) and his ill-equipped sister (Karen Gillan) and mushed nearly to death.
Buck is rescued by the outdoorsman John Thornton (Harrison Ford), who has fled to the Yukon in grief after the death of his son. Thornton nurses Buck back to health, and the two then set out to search for gold and adventure. In the virgin wilds of the Yukon, Buck befriends a pack of timber wolves, and his natural inclinations begin to assert themselves.
Director Chris Sanders (The Croods, How to Train Your Dragon), has created a modest, enjoyable, visually entertaining family film that ought to be a hit among Boy Scout troops, if nothing else. Ford is to be commended for the emotive scenes that he performs without an actual dog by his side. Omar Sy (the French star who was also the velociraptor trainer in Jurassic World) is a delight in the film's first third. Dan Stevens (Beauty and the Beast) and Karen Gillan (Avengers: Endgame) seem awfully high-profile to be slumming it as these broad and unlikeable villains. And Buck? Buck's a good boy.
Though the film was shot principally on sets in Los Angeles, the recreation of the glorious Canadian wilderness should invite all of us to stand in solidarity with indigenous protesters who are now attempting to halt the construction of a gas pipeline in British Columbia, just south of the Yukon.