The Call of the Wild (PG)
09/04/20 21:57 Filed in: 2020
Directed by: Chris Sanders
Starring: Harrison Ford
Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!
Based on the Jack London novel of the same name, The Call of the Wild feels like a Disney movie, but isn’t (the movie was produced by 20th Century Studios).
Harrison Ford cuts a rugged figure as old-timer John Thornton. Ford certainly looks the part; he grew a bushy prospector’s beard in three and a half months. Ford’s performance is predictably strong as a man with vastly different priorities than most of his contemporaries. Unlike everyone else headed “North to Alaska,” Thornton’s goal isn’t gold nuggets, only solitude.
Ford anchors a cast that features oddly checkered acting. Bradley Whitford is solid in his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part as Buck’s (Terry Notary) former, forbearing owner. Buck’s dogsled masters, played by Omar Sy and Cara Gee, are superb in physically demanding roles. It’s fitting that Sy and Gee’s characters deliver the mail since they deliver strong supporting performances that keep the story zipping along during the film’s early passages.
Ironically, the weakest performance comes from one of the finest actors in the cast…Dan Stevens. The one-note heavy Stevens portrays makes a Disney villain seem complex by comparison. Witness Stevens’ face when he enters Thornton’s cabin. His maniacal mask is so inhumanly contorted that I actually thought the movie had switched to an animated feature for a few beats.
This kind of melodramatic and megalomaniacal part is a tremendous disservice to Stevens, who, in other contexts (Downton Abbey), has proven himself to be a fine actor. Here, he plays a greedy, cruel (especially to animals), unreasonable opportunist who wouldn’t last five minutes out in the wild.
Set in the Yukon in the 1890s, the locations (many of which were filmed in British Colombia and Yukon, Canada) are mind-blowingly frigid (winter) and lush (summer). While director Chris Sanders (How to Train Your Dragon) does a fine job of creating the look and feel of London’s pioneer world, it’s Janusz Kaminski’s (Schindler’s List) cinematography that helps capture the alternatingly breathtaking and terrifying majesty of the Great White North.
The only knock on the visuals is that the saturation is really augmented during the summer sequences and the aurora borealis shots were quite obviously created with CGI. While on the subject, why was it necessary to CG animate Buck, the St. Bernard/Scotch Shepherd mix? Sure, the process of filming a live animal can be a bear (especially when it is one), but there’s just no replacing the genuine article.
Having a human inside a mo-cap suit mimicking the motions of a dog is preposterous (as it must’ve seemed to Ford when he had to pet Notary’s head). Although the final result isn’t embarrassing, there are moments when we can see right through the CG veneer, especially when, in an anthropomorphic display, Buck tosses Thornton a sideways glance. My preference would’ve been for real, rather than mo-cap and CG, animals in the movie. Featuring the latter was a major impediment to my enjoyment of the film.
In the end, The Call of the Wild is a crowd-pleasing retelling of London’s classic adventure yarn. Excellent production values and gorgeous locations greatly add to this family-friendly tale of adventure and companionship between a man and his dog. For better or worse, the movie is exactly what you expect it to be.
So, will you answer the call?
Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4