Sometimes out-of-work actors can go slumming for a paycheck. And sometimes incompetent directors can strike a bit of luck. And maybe, just maybe, the two can meet in the middle, creating something that at least works nicely to fill a rainy Sunday afternoon. Call of the Wild is just that sort of movie.
The title is a bit misleading. I expected an ill-advised, bargain basement rendition of the great Jack London novel. Imagine my surprise – and relief – when the movie turned out to be something entirely different. This Call of the Wild tells a contemporary story of bonding between a grandfather, ‘Grandpa’ Bill Hale (Christopher Lloyd), and a granddaughter, Ryann Hale (Ariel Gade).
Set in snowy, rugged Montana, the movie has Ryann and Grandpa nursing to health a half dog/half wolf found beaten and bloody in their backyard. A teenage boy from town knows a great potential lead sled dog when he sees one. His archly evil adversary Heep (played with scenery-chewing gusto by Timothy Bottoms) also has a keen eye for prime sled dog material. And, around every turn, there’s a startling mountain man who eats apples with one mighty scary hunting knife. Sort of tying all of this together – and providing the movie with its title – are nightly bedtime readings of the London novel from grandfather to granddaughter, roughly paralleling the events of the story.
Now, Call of the Wild is not a well made movie, not in the slightest. Director Richard Gabai fulfills the legacy of his track record (Blood Nasty, Virgin High, Motocross Kids) and proves incapable of shooting his way out of a paper bag and, even worse, fully capable of missing the one of the easiest balls to hit in movies – the until now virtually indestructible sports movie.
There is something very wrong going on in a sports movie when the big climactic contest – in this case a sled dog race, of course – is utterly boring. I’ve seen a great many sports movies, including some with an even lower budget, and all of them have at least pulled off the big climax. Well, so much for the incompetent director part of this review. I’m much happier, though, to tell you about those out-of-work slumming actors and one very pleasantly surprising newcomer. No, I never take pleasure in panning a movie. I always look for the good things in every one I watch.
Timothy Bottoms has that frightened gleam in his eyes that says he knows he’s trapped in a mess of a movie and, lo and behold, he seems to feed off of it. His character needs to be really mean and, boy oh boy, getting up every morning to work with the director of Blood Nasty was just the motivation he required. Even the sweat on his brow reeks of cruelty.
Christopher Lloyd proves that he’s one thing that’s even sturdier than a good old sports movie. Most everyone around him spends the movie dribbling foul balls into the dugout, but every time he steps up to the plate you sense – even expect – that it could go out of the park. He never actually follows through, but he does enjoy a decent batting average, hitting plenty of singles.
And then there is Ariel Gade as Ryann. She is a child actor of substance and charm. She’s an effortless and natural presence. You’ve probably heard the saying that an actor is so engaging that she can captivate even while reading the phone book. Well, that always seemed like hyperbole to me, until now. I look forward to many more movies starring Miss Gade.