Film Review: The Call of the Wild (2020)

Dir: Chris Sanders
Starring: Harrison Ford, Terry Notary, Dan Stevens, Omar Sy, Karen Gillan, and more.
Rating: PG
Runtime: 1hr 40min
Spoiler Level: Light! Book spoilers are noted.

As a self-admitted former wolf girl, one of my favorite books growing up was The Call of the Wild by Jack London. However, my introduction to the legendary tale of a dog named Buck was actually through the Great Illustrated Classics version, which are “softer” adaptations of classic novels. Much later, in high school, my love for the story was reignited when I finally read the original and was able to better appreciate the sharper edges of London’s story.

download (1)When I saw the trailer for the new film, I was skeptical – and not only because the CGI was a little sketch upon first viewing, and the rating for the film was not indicative of the novel’s contents. And yet, I felt that pull – that inner, long-dormant wolf girl instinct – to see it. So I was there on opening night, in a totally full theater, and, inevitably, I was in tears by the end.

The Call of the Wild tells the story of Buck (Notary, via motion capture), a massive St. Bernard / Scotch Collie mix who is abducted from his pampered life in California, taken to the frigid Yukon, and sold as a sled dog at the height of the 1890’s Klondike Gold Rush. Thrust into a new world much harsher than the one he’s known, Buck must adapt to life in the unrelenting north as he grapples with his wild instincts, establishes himself as a powerful leader, and forges a life-changing bond with a lonely, troubled man named John Thornton (Ford.)

Buck’s adventure is a thrilling one, as audiences watch him go from the spoiled pet of a respected judge, to a broken, lonely outcast, to a defiant and capable leader, and a stalwart, beloved companion. The supporting characters – mainly the human ones – come and go from his life at various intervals, and each teaches Buck unique lessons. He learns the “law of the club,” from his captors, teamwork and duty from postal workers Francois and Perrault, folly and greed from Hal, Mercedes, and Charles, and asserting dominance from his husky rival Spitz, who, I realized upon watching, is literally Steel from Balto. But amidst these lessons are over-arcing themes, many of which are rooted in London’s original novel, such as the brutality of nature, grief and loss, and survival against the odds. And, of course, there are familiar cliches and predictable moments, but it’s a family film, so that’s no surprise.

This film truly shines when it features Buck’s growing relationship with John Thornton – the most notable and important friendship that Buck forms. Buoyed by an evocative performance by Harrison Ford, it is clear from the first harmonica exchange that the bond between grizzled man and dog is going to be special. Thornton and Buck come together at a vital stage in each of their respective journeys, at the exact time when they need one another the most, as Thornton is inspired by Buck’s resilient spirit, and Buck is drawn in by Thornton’s genuine kindness and companionship. Watching their stories combine, and seeing their love for one another grow, is peak “man and his dog” goodness and delivers, if I may, “all the feels.” I didn’t think Harrison Ford and a CGI dog would pull on my heartstrings as much as it did, but boy, it did.

I felt the tears spilling down my cheeks as the film drew to a close – against my expectations, I had formed an attachment to the characters in the film, boosted by my already existing love for the story. The finale, the vital moment where Buck answers that call and embraces the instincts that have been subtly guiding him toward his ultimate journey’s end, is wholly satisfying, if bittersweet.

The visual effects for the dogs are a little cartoony – as is Dan Stevens as the mustachioed, villainous Hal, who also entirely shoulders the villain role in the stead of minor novel characters, but that’s not the fault of effects – which will certainly bother some viewers. I appreciated Buck’s overall “look,” as he didn’t look like a wolf, which is the erroneous direction other adaptations have taken. I didn’t find myself distracted by the effects too much, as I was fully engaged in the story, and impressed by the beautiful environments and backdrops. But I also sat through the entirety of Cats, so take from that what you will. Additionally, the score by John Powell is exceptional and is already on my playlist.

Fans of Jack London’s original work will, of course, note the obvious omissions from the source material. This film is not what I would call a “faithful” adaptation. Much of the violence – and the brutal, if realistic view of “survival of the fittest” – has been toned down, likely to appeal to families and younger audiences. Not to spoil a 100+ year old story, but particularly grisly elements (***SPOILER ALERT*** such as Buck killing Spitz, Francois taking an ax to a rabid dog’s head, an entire team of sled dogs drowning after falling under breaking ice, and a negative representation of Native Americans ***END SPOILER***) are either completely absent, or have been “softened” to suit a PG rating. And while I love London’s stark portrayal of the life of a dog in the cold, cold north, and I respect the era in which it was written, I personally didn’t mind the changes in this version. Many of the original themes – nature versus nurture, the enduring relationship between man and dog, and the pull of primordial instincts, etc. – remain important touchstones to the story, even if they are shown in a different way.

Sometimes, The Great Illustrated Classics version of a story – or the PG film version – can open the gateway for a young reader or film-watcher to someday experience the original work, and glean an entirely separate appreciation from it when the time comes. For that reason, this tamer version of The Call of the Wild has earned my full admiration.

Overall rating: 8/10

One Comment

  1. […] Frostwritten / Allie Frost (8/10): “…while I love London’s stark portrayal of the life of a dog in the cold, cold north, and I respect the era in which it was written, I personally didn’t mind the changes in this version. Many of the original themes – nature versus nurture, the enduring relationship between man and dog, and the pull of primordial instincts, etc. – remain important touchstones to the story, even if they are shown in a different way.” […]

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