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REVIEW – “The Call of the Wild”: Harrison Ford Heroic in a Not-Quite-Real Wilderness

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If there could be only one thing 2019’s films will be most infamous for, it’s the needless concept to bring a hyper realistic portrayal of non-human characters to make them appear more human than they truly are. Jon Favreau’s Lion King and Tom Hooper’s Cats have proven there’s little to no regulation in place. So, the next logical step would be to chip in a similar amount of dollars but scale back the approach to where it feels the coziest, and perhaps the most animated. The Call of the Wild, Jack London’s iconic 1903 novel, earns its (roughly) seventh adaptation to a full-length motion picture. And for its missteps, certainly a film to treasure knowing it could be the last bastion of a slowly dying breed.

Its lead star may be a cuddly pupper, but it’s Harrison Ford who earns the top billing, sliding into the role of John Thornton, the lead human and reliable narrator, an aging hunter at the peak of Alaska’s Klondike era, searching desperately for gold while being too far away from his family. Buck, our dog star crosses paths with Thornton at multiple junctures through a long year in his life which sees him going everywhere. Pushed out of a stately home owned by a California judge (Bradley Whitford), adopted into a mall delivery pack by caring mushers (Omar Sy and Cara Gee), and then taken in by a pack of careless rich snobs (Karen Gillan and Dan Stevens). All this in the first 45 minutes or so, before Thornton reluctantly takes Buck in. Of course, that’s where the real fun begins, seeing Ford bond so compassionately with a dog who wasn’t there during shooting, but who develops into a true leader for all the forest denizens, becoming one with them.

Using the novel, and elements of the 1935 Clark Gable film as a template, director Chris Sanders (Lilo and Stitch, The Croods) makes a seamless jump into live-action filmmaking, applying his knowledge of wild creature characterization to a lead actor who’s not so much the standard canine performer who’s served as poster bait for many a family-friendly animal movie before. The difference here is, the star is a virtual manifestation of man’s best friend, played a bit too cartoonish for one’s taste. Terry Notary’s the one responsible for giving Ford assistance in honing that man-to-canine bond in a stable mo-cap performance. The dog himself was confidently modeled after one adopted by Sanders’ wife Jessica before production.

The final product may be where I bear issue with. The issue these photorealistic films can equally share: the idea of over portrayal that lacks justification, and perhaps a sense of realism only a real dog could invoke. Overdone as the digital equivalent appears, a real performer couldn’t quite match the same level of integrity. It’s quite the balancing act to maintain, with no set formula to follow. Something that studios, and the VFX studios ought to be collaborating on, in order to avoid obvious creative misfires from turning ugly.

That realism may only be further muted by the idea of such a film being shot not quite on location, but at least making great use of where it could be shot, around California, in both studio and wild settings. The always-reliable Janusz Kaminski (Ready Player One) can make anywhere he’s putting a camera to look like the most picturesque locale imaginable, which amounts to a carefully placed plus.

The faithfulness to Call’s source material is perhaps why I found this viewing experience worthwhile. Sanders, along with screenwriter Michael Green (American Gods), are making a divisive, if not noble attempt to allow London’s masterwork the space to leap off the page. Keep in mind, Buck has much to deal with in his trip, but not to the level of graphic violence seen on the written word, thankfully. We keep a steady PG, an agreeable selling point. What we do see on screen is nothing short of what novel illustrations could look like; had London sold his story as a children’s storybook, perhaps it’d have been more accurate? What we get is vivid enough, a uniquely heartfelt representation of resilient friendship. And a film buoyed down by plenty of intense action-friendly chase scenes.

How often do we see all that in a dog movie without it devolving into cheap claptrap? Far too much, and Sanders can’t completely steer his film out of that direction. At least that high sentimentality drives that character arc in an honest way. That’s where it wins out, for the most part. More so, if Stevens’ appearance as a shoehorned villain for Thornton to address could’ve been dialed down about 1000%.

Despite where it snags in that triumphant journey, Call of the Wild manages to make one good run out of the park in uniting a talented director with a unique vision and bringing a few well-established actors along for the ride. The kind of film we probably will never see again theatrically, unless we know it can be done for 1/3rd of the budget the former Fox (now Disney’s 20th Century Studios) spent on bringing it to life. Sad, but truthful to where filmmaking’s going nowadays.

The big risks are going out of large screens, we all know that. Regardless, I’d consider this Call an enjoyable enough trip through an imaginative wilderness. Where ol’ Grandpa Han is once more in his element, partnered by a furry creature with plenty of personality. And certainly, where the room to improve the finite balance between human and non-human acting, and roll around a bit in the dirt, has only grown dramatically. Quite the call to answer. (C+; 3/5 Horns Up!)

The Call of the Wild opens in wide release this weekend; rated PG for some violence, peril, thematic elements, and mild language; 100 mins.