Monday, May 4, 2020

The Call of the Wild (2020): A Review


Before the Covid-19 pandemic closed down theaters, The Call of the Wild was already struggling financially. As I had to chance to see it during my house arrest, I now see that it is not either as wonderful as some have told me nor as horrible as some have told me. It's somewhere in the middle, with some problems but not without some positives.

Based on the Jack London novel, The Call of the Wild is about a St. Bernard/Scotch collie dog named Buck. He lives in luxury in California until he's abducted, sent to the Yukon Territory during the Gold Rush and sold. There, Buck has to evolve and adapt to the various circumstances. He goes first from the spoiled pooch to first a pack member to pack leader of a mail sled team headed by Perrault (Omar Sy) and Francoise (Cara Gee); next he heads a pack for a thoroughly stupid faux-prospector/dandy Hal (Dan Stevens) and his doomed party over Buck's "objections". Finally, he reencounters John Thornton (Harrison Ford), with whom he bonds.

Buck and John head out to a previously unexplored section of the Yukon, where John can both pan for gold and find peace after his young son's death. John's surprised to find much gold there, finding the rumors are true. He, however, has little interest in gold itself, while Buck starts finding his wild side with a pack of wolves. Unfortunately, Hal has traced them both, leading to a fiery conclusion and Buck eventually surrendering to the "call of the wild".

The Call of the Wild trades frontier realism for goofy CGI animal ...The most I can say about The Call of the Wild is that it is "acceptable". I found it neither thrilling or terrible but pleasant enough. I read the book in my youth and loved it, but I cannot recall enough of it to say whether Michael Green's adaptation sticks close enough to the source material.

It may be because, if my memory serves right, The Call of the Wild comes from Buck's point-of-view. As such, the idea of a dog narrating his life story would be almost laughable on film, at least in one working to be naturalistic. To compensate the idea of having either Buck "voice" his life or have a silent film, The Call of the Wild had Thornton serve as narrator, and frankly I think this is one of the film's two major problems.

Ford's growly voice is already hard to handle at times, but the bigger issue is that he has access to information Thornton could not have known. How for example would Thornton know Buck had been abducted or his exploits with and against the mail sled pack? I wonder if perhaps a quieter approach would have worked, especially as the sequences where we see Buck travel back and forth between Thornton and the wolf pack worked well.

Hal (The Call of the Wild) | Villains Wiki | FandomThe second, and perhaps larger issue is with Stevens' Hal. No matter how hard anyone tries, Hal does not come across as any kind of serious antagonist, let alone threat. Everything went wrong with this character. Stevens' characterization can only be seen as deliberately comical: the exaggerated eyes, manner, speaking all look like bad farce. Dan Stevens, judging from Chris Sanders' direction, was told to play Hal as if he were Snidely Whiplash. You could not take Hal seriously, and every time Stevens is on screen your reactions are either to burst out laughing or groan that he's there again.

If not for Stevens hammy melodrama, The Call of the Wild would have been much better. It is to Sanders and the various producers credit that they went for a more multicultural albeit perhaps ahistorical casting. These were excellent choices as Sy and Gee were a highlight of the film as the intrepid mailmen/women. It allowed for moments of comedy, such as when Perrault fought against Buck wishing to be the new leader of the pack or Francoise's rescue.

As for Ford, he did well on the whole, voiceover notwithstanding. It is difficult to act with a real dog, let alone a CGI one, but Ford did make it if not completely believable at least plausible. He reaches for Thornton's tragedy and brings out the pathos of his backstory; he even has a few moments of levity as well. If not for the voiceover work again I would have thought better of things.

With regards to the CGI Buck, to be honest I didn't find it as awful a distraction as others. Yes, at times it was clear he was not a real dog (the rafting down the river section a particularly weak point), but if you suspend disbelief you can accept the unreality of it all.

On the whole, The Call of the Wild was pleasant enough: not overtly violent to where children would be frightened, not sugary sweet where adults would be bored. It's more good dog than bad dog but not top dog.   


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