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Review: The Call of the Wild (2020)

The Call of the Wild (2020)

Directed by: Chris Sanders

Premise: Based on the novel by Jack London. A dog named Buck is kidnapped from his domestic home and taken to Alaska during the gold rush. Buck is sold to a sled team and later becomes the companion of an aged explorer (Harrison Ford).

What Works: The past couple of years have seen a niche of dog movies like A Dog’s Purpose and Isle of Dogs and The Secret Life of Pets. These films are specifically designed to appeal to family audiences who love and sentimentalize dogs by emphasizing the social and adorable qualities of the animal characters and by anthropomorphizing the canines. 2020’s Call of the Wild refashions Jack London’s novel for this trend. For its intended audience, this film hits all the familiar buttons. The movie improves significantly in its last third when Buck pairs up with an explorer played by Harrison Ford. The rapport between Ford and the dog is likable and the screenwriters do an admirable job taking the elements of London’s novel and rearranging them in a way that suits the kind of movie this is intended to be.

What Doesn’t: Call of the Wild suffers from a number of flaws but the overriding problem is that it’s just not believable. That’s rooted in the visuals. Most of Call of the Wild takes place in the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush but it never looks of its time and place. The costumes and sets appear clean and artificial. The world of the film never looks organic and lived in. The dogs are also fake, especially Buck. Instead of using live dogs, the filmmakers employed motion capture technology and the animals are all digital creations. The animation is terrible. The dogs look like cartoons, so much so that viewers might expect Buck to ask for a Scooby Snack. The film also leans into anthropomorphizing the dogs to such an extent that they don’t really come across as animals. That’s indicative of another problem with Call of the Wild. It has almost nothing to do with London’s novel. It isn’t just that the film makes significant changes to the story. That could have been fine but the story presented here is antithetical to what London wrote. The novel Call of the Wild is about the Darwinist struggle of nature in which survival is ensured by strength and cunning and brutality. The power of London’s story is in its rejection of sentimentality. This film version plays as though it was made by people who never read London’s book. And even that wouldn’t necessarily be fatal if not for the film being absurd and stupid. Call of the Wild includes multiple sequences in which the humans sit the dogs in front of a map and explain the journey ahead of them. It also includes narration by Harrison Ford’s character which is unnecessary, spelling out what’s already obvious, and commenting on parts of Buck’s story that his character could never know.

DVD extras: Featurettes, trailer.

Bottom Line: Call of the Wild never overcomes the contradiction at its center. The moviemakers turn a story about the savagery of nature into a cuddly and inoffensive piece of fluff. This is a poorly conceived movie made worse by lousy production values.

Episode: #806 (June 28, 2020)