‘I’ ON CULTURE
Unfortunately, The Call of the Wild is not as good as it might have been. This is, according to some counts, the seventh movie version of this story. Of course, most movies featuring dogs have also been watered-down versions of the depiction of man and his “best friend.” The book, and this version of the story, make it very clear that the dog, Buck, is the real center of the film, and the “call” is to him.
Jack London, who wrote the classic 1903 novel, made it clear that Buck was not only a hero but a victim. In many cases, he was abused. Several of the key people he interacted with were villains, and he was constantly attracted to the “free” wolves in the area. In some ways, this idea is essentially descended from those of Rousseau and his “noble savage.” The dog is good, but civilization is bad. Unfortunately, some of the message is diluted by the cinematic need for “cuteness” and, somewhere, a bit of human heroics for the audience to find a connection with.
Buck (who is a digital creation; no dogs were harmed or even used to create this pup) is an oversized dog belonging to Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford) in Santa Clara, California. Because his clumsiness interferes with a party at the judge’s home, he is put outside and is promptly dognapped to Alaska. He winds up eventually becoming, because of his strength, size and (according to London) character, alpha dog. He is treated well by mailman Perrault (Omar Sy) and partner Francoise (Cara Gee). But then he is stolen by the evil brother and sister team of Hal (Dan Stevens) and Mercedes (Karen Gillan) and mistreated. The pull away from mankind gets stronger at that point.
Buck escapes and winds up teamed with John Thornton (Harrison Ford). Director Chris Sanders wisely built up the backstory for the part. London merely sketched him out as a counterpoint to evil Hal. In the film, Thornton has come to the wilds mourning the death of his son, which led to the breakup of his family. He is a broken man who did heed the “call of the wild.” He is a drunk, but a nice one, and the film goes out of its way to follow the old notion of “man saves dog, dog saves man,” as Buck at one point actually takes away Thornton’s bottle.
As a result of the changes, this becomes a nice Disney film, although Disney did not make it. But it did distribute it. London’s book was violent and tough. By today’s standards, it would also be considered more than a bit racist. Modern filmmaker sensibilities have changed enough to make certain that Michael Green’s screenplay covers up much of the toughness. In the book, only Buck survives his dog pack’s fall through the ice, an incident which London depicts as the reality of the tough life in the wild. Also in the book, the natives kill Thornton. Buck, who was away playing with the wolves at the time, comes back to kill a lot of them and becomes the stuff of legend as (sorry, but I just can’t resist this one) the “leader of the pack.”
Although London was at least a bit sympathetic to the plight of natives and minorities (although more than a bit condescending), this film makes certain that those issues are not covered at all.
The acting was good. Ford dominated, as expected. His performance was a nuanced, interesting one; one minute vulnerable and the next heroic or kindly. This was an inspired artistic decision, giving us a real character to identify with. Knowledgeable cinema nuts said he was even better than earlier actors, who include Clark Gable and Charlton Heston. I liked Sy a lot; his role was reasonably well-constructed. Unfortunately, Stevens and Gillan were a bit too stereotypical as villains. Of course, Buck never missed a cue, since he was a computer creation. Although the work was well done, it occasionally just did not quite have the true canine feel.
This was probably the best of all the movies of the same name and is far better than the way of cute dogs that somehow find themselves chasing after owners who’ve moved or been taken away or come back in new doggie forms.
So, a nice movie. Not great, but enjoyable. You could wait to see it on demand, however, saving more than a bit of money.