The Call of the Wild (2020) Review

Jack London’s 1903 classic adventure novel is given a CGI makeover in The Call of the Wild, which marks its fifth adaptation since the silent-film era back in 1923. The CGI in question isn’t referred to the entire film but the dog itself. That’s right, the beloved St. Bernard/Scotch Collie canine Buck in this latest film is wholly photorealistic CGI. The same technological approach that we used to see in Disney’s live-action remakes of The Jungle Book (2016) and The Lion King (2019).

I can’t believe the filmmakers behind The Call of the Wild figured it’s a good idea to digitise a dog instead of giving us an actual one. It’s not just Buck that isn’t real since the movie also employed the same photorealistic technique for the rest of the animals featured in this film. Sure, doing so means they don’t have to risk the real animals but no matter how hyperrealistic, expressive or meticulously rendered these CGI dogs look like, it’s hard to shake off that uneasy feeling of watching fake dogs in an otherwise live-action film. Not to mention it’s difficult for me to root for these dogs, particularly Buck, which supposed to be the movie’s central attraction. Still, if there’s any consolation worth mentioning here, using CG dogs do work wonders in action set-pieces (the whole segment where Buck becomes one of the sledge dogs particularly comes to mind).

The story — credited to Michael Green of Logan and Blade Runner 2049 fame — retains the novel’s episodic narrative structure, with Buck (played by actor and stunt coordinator Terry Notary in a motion-capture performance) being kidnapped from the house he lives with his owner Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford in a cameo appearance). The kidnapper ends up selling Buck to a mailman and his partner (Omar Sy’s Perrault, Cara Gee’s Fran├žoise), where he would be subsequently trained as one of the sledge-dog team operated in the snowy Yukon wilderness. Throughout the journey, Buck crosses paths with different masters including abusive taskmaster Hal (Dan Stevens) and the kind-hearted John Thornton (Harrison Ford).

Michael Green’s overall adapted screenplay feels like it belongs to the garden-variety Disney formula, complete with all the obligatory sentimentality and melodramatic storytelling approach. But it still has its moments, notably the aforementioned scenes where Buck is trained as part of the sledge-dog team to deliver mails as well as his eventual bonding with Harrison Ford’s John Thornton later in the movie. Veteran cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, in the meantime, does a decent job capturing the breathtaking sight of the Yukon wilderness.

Cast-wise, Harrison Ford delivers a perfectly grizzled turn as John Thornton while Omar Sy and Cara Gee give solid support to their respective roles as French-Canadian mail-delivering couples Perrault and Fran├žoise. The only biggest downside in the otherwise promising ensemble cast is Dan Stevens’s role of Hal is nothing more than your standard-issue, one-dimensional antagonist character.