The film The Call of the Wild, directed by Chris Sanders, is an adaptation of Jack London’s classic 1903 novel about a St. Bernard-Scotch Collie dog named Buck. While Buck is the star of the show, Harrison Ford’s presence as the haunted John Thornton lends gravitas to the tale of a pampered California pooch that suddenly gets thrust into the Alaskan wilderness where he has to fight to survive.
Fondly remembering the story from the book I read in high school, I was eager to take my son and his friend to see this film. It is family friendly to be sure, though rated PG because there is some violence that is necessary to the story including abuse of dogs (don’t worry, they are all CGI) and altercations between humans. Sanders stays the course with a steady directorial hand, and Michael Green’s screenplay is largely faithful to the source material.
When we first see Buck, he is causing havoc in the large California estate of Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford), where he rules the roosts and causes housekeepers and cooks to take extraordinary measures to protect furniture, vases, and food. After he ruins a big celebration by devouring all the food on an outdoor table, Miller seeks to punish the dog by making him stay outside for the night.
This provides an opportunity for Buck to be dog-knapped by thieves who sell him to fill the need for sled dogs in Alaska. Buck quickly goes from living a life of luxury to the snowy streets of Skagway, where he learns the harsh reality of the club as a painful way to control dogs in their pens. Buck breaks away from his keepers and has a brief encounter with Thornton, and we see an almost immediate spiritual connection between the two before Buck is yanked away to be sold.
Buck is bought as a sled dog by Perrault (a terrific Omar Sy) and his partner Francoise (Cara Gee) who run the mail route between Skagway and Dawson. Here we see Buck become part of a team, and it is not a smooth transition at first. Buck has always been on his own and treated like a king, but now he must be just one of the pack, led by the sly Siberian Husky Spitz, who doesn’t like Buck from the start.
There are moments when Buck sees his spirit guide, an enormous black wolf with red eyes. This helps Buck connect to his inner strength and independence, and also empowers him to fight back when Spitz bullies him and the other dogs.
Eventually, Buck gets to live with Thornton. Ford is at his best in this film – though some of their shared scenes made me think of Ford’s Han Solo interacting with the furry Chewbacca in the Star Wars films – and Thornton is estranged from his family and looking for something to make life meaningful again. His bonding with Buck pushes him to head north for the summer and pan for gold, but the evil Hal (Dan Stevens) seeks revenge against Thornton and is on his trail.
The rest of the way is spoiler territory, but I can say that this film is a delight in so many ways. It is super family friendly, though there is some sadness, and at lunch after the movie I talked with my son and his friend about it and why things happened the way they did, and they seemed to understand that this reflected the reality of the Klondike of that time.
Erik Gonzalez and company’s CGI is nearly flawless, making Buck’s expressions and movements totally believable – credit Terry Notary too who motion-captured Buck. Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is a sumptuous delight, capturing both the beauty and the danger of the Klondike, and John Powell’s score is glorious and supports the visual splendor.
Ford’s Thornton rises above it all in his scruffy and grumpy magnificence. He embodies a man who has suffered and who has loved, but seems about at the end of his rope until Buck comes along. Once they are together the story feels right, as Buck is loved for what he is and not what he wasn’t meant to be, and Buck’s good nature and loyalty give Thornton a reason to go on. At this point in his career, Ford is able to slip on a role like a well-worn shoe but make it feel new again.
Buck’s connection with the timber wolves in the forest beyond the cabin where he lives with Thornton is also explored. As the spirit guide wolf leads him to what he can and should be, Buck is torn between his love of a man and his need to fulfill a greater destiny in the Klondike.
I highly recommend this film as family friendly, old-fashioned entertainment. Go see it, and I predict that you will hear a call of the wild of your own.