Harrison Ford true hero in ‘Call of the Wild’ update
When the live-action remake of “The Lion King” was released last year, there was something about the computerized creatures looking so realistic yet suddenly springing into song that was both distracting and quite hard to embrace.
When the trailer for “The Call of the Wild” was released, it featured yet another computer-generated critter that looked to have the same effect. Buck, the mountainous mutt who serves as the novel’s protagonist, was given subtle anthropomorphic mannerisms that were jarring and seemed to take me out of the rugged naturalistic backdrop of the author’s source material.
This is the ninth iteration of the Jack London classic. Those who have answered the “Call” in past films include Clark Gable, Charlton Heston, Rick Schroeder, and Rutger Hauer. Here, we are treated to a grizzled Harrison Ford as John Thornton, the solitary mountain man who befriends the pooch as they become one another’s guardians during the California Gold Rush.
This would all seem to be a dream for yours truly, as I have been an avid consumer of London’s outdoorsy tales, a lifelong dog daddy, and a devotee to all things starring my hero, Han Solo/Indiana Jones. But ... there is that animated pooch.
As it turns out, as much as we realize Buck is not physically inhabiting the screen with his co-stars (none of the dogs are real), the animation does allow the story to delve more into the minds of the mutts and place them in more harrowing scenarios that would certainly be harmful to even the most talented canine thespians.
It helps that director Chris Sanders had practice with similar digitized creations in such films as “How to Train Your Dragon” and “The Croods.” The director also crafts a rousingly naturalistic depiction of the late 19th century Alaskan wilderness that demonstrates an affection for London’s appreciation for survival and animal instinct.
Sanders still manages to convey Buck, the digi-dog star, with all his rambunctious nature intact as he is dognapped from his loving home and forced to become part of a sled team. We are able to get more of Buck’s interactions among the distinct personalities of his teammates without fearing them starting to speak or sing. As awkward as the characterization first appears, “Wild” manages to keep it reined in so as to not cross the uncanny valley.
But the true hero of “Wild” is Ford. He’s been blamed for phoning it in with some of his later screen roles, but here he slips into the guise of a broken loner like he’s donning a well-worn leather jacket and fedora. And Sanders never lets Buck slip into cartoon extremes as he matures from bumbling goof to connecting with wolf ancestors.
If anything approaches cartoon, it’s the role of Hal (played by Dan Stephens), the cruel sled-driver who is portrayed with mustache-twirling devilishness that really does not fit in this adaptation.
It’s understandable that some viewers won’t make the leap of having a digital lead in a tale that celebrates the natural world as London does. But Sanders pays much visual respect to London’s prose with breathtaking vistas and perilously staged action, and receives a lively turn from Ford that makes for suitably thrilling family entertainment.
For a sequel proposal, I suggest letting Buck loose on the set of “Cats.”