- The Call of the Wild
- Directed by Chris Sanders
- Written by Michael Green
- Starring Harrison Ford, Omar Sy, Dan Stevens, Karen Gillan
- Classification PG; G in Quebec; 105 minutes
The Call of the Wild heeds a call of the times. It offers a rather multicultural representation of the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush compared with other Hollywood movies set in that time period. Does this latest version of a popular adventure novel actually strike gold, however? That depends on what you went looking for.
If you’re after an action-packed adventure film set against turn-of-the-century Canadian wilderness, you’ll likely come away disappointed. If you’re looking for a good ol’ yarn – the kind where bad guys sneer, good guys sigh and a big dog rescues everyone and finds its true self in the process? Jackpot!
The Call of the Wild is based on a short novel by prolific essayist and author Jack London, published in 1903. Although the movie never makes the actual breed of the big dog clear, the original story is about a St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix named Buck, who lives an enviable life as a pampered pet at the California home of Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford). Following a transgression at a birthday party and banishment to the front porch, Buck is kidnapped and packed off to Skagway, Alaska, to be sold as a sled dog.
At the snow-laden market, Buck catches the eye of French-Canadian mail courier Perrault (Omar Sy), who buys Buck for his sled-dog team. Although Perrault’s wife, Francoise (Cara Gee), initially dismisses Buck, it turns out that a dog is never too old to learn new tricks. Buck quickly endears himself to his teammates and his owners, ensuring the mail arrives on time to lonely prospectors in the Klondike.
Soon after Buck manages to position himself as the lead dog, his luck runs out. The mail-delivering sled dog team is sold off to new owner Hal (Dan Stevens), a greedy adventurer looking for gold. Buck is rescued from the clutches of this villainous master by Thornton (Harrison Ford), a grizzled former prospector who is looking for salvation himself. Both Buck and Thornton ultimately find themselves in the wilderness of the Yukon, traversing waterways and paths once travelled by their ancestors, as Thornton keeps telling Buck.
The story clearly has appeal, given that it’s been adapted into one silent film and three talkies with Clark Gable (1935), Charlton Heston (1972) and Rutger Hauer (1997) playing Thornton. It also inspired Call of the Wild 3D (2009), a film about a city girl who finds herself bored while visiting her grandfather in small town Montana until she befriends a wild dog, calling him Buck.
In this latest version, Chris Sanders (How to Train Your Dragon) renders Buck with the help of motion-capture actor Terry Notary and CGI effects to mixed results. You won’t mistake Buck, his dog-sled teammates and sundry woodland creatures for real animals. French-Canadians will likely be amused by Perrault’s accent, even though Sy plays the character with affable charm. It’s a delight to see Gee, whose star once shone brightly on Toronto theatre stages, shine on Hollywood’s big screen.
The film’s inclusion of Sy and Gee (whose mother is Ojibwa) as the mixed-race couple delivering mail, as well as the appearances of other non-white faces among the prospector population, are likely meant to address the shortcomings of the original story by London, whose writing alternately reflected his progressive views and themes of social Darwinism. But instead of adding any heft to the story, the casting feels like the ticking of a diversity checkbox.
The Call of the Wild is a perfectly serviceable family film. You leave the theatre with Buck’s goofy antics on your mind and Ford’s gravelly-voiced narration still ringing in your ears. There may even be a lesson about nature vs. nurture. But that’s about as deep as it goes.
The Call of the Wild opens Feb. 21.
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