Jack London’s The Call of the Wild is the OG of anthropomorphized adventure stories, transforming its St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix into an engrossing protagonist without turning him into a primal cartoon. The epic 19th century tale of Buck, the domesticated pet who finds himself in the Yukon and battling life as a sled dog, maintains a tricky balance: although London roots his story in the canine perspective, Buck’s back-to-nature plight is always realistic. It’s a wonder, then, why 20th Century Fox (now Disney label 20th Century Studios) decided to adapt London’s story, by turning Buck into a motion-capture monstrosity, the most prominent unnatural ingredient in a movie all about the natural world. The 2020 Call of the Wild isn’t an all-out atrocity so much as a question mark, a formulaic adventure story spruced up with cutting-edge technology in search of people.
If director Chris Sanders’ family-friendly treatment never devolves into a Cats-level atrocity, it’s only because Buck behaves (somewhat) like a real dog. From the moment the hulking creature bounds onto the steps of a mansion somehow too small to hold him, the CGI works overtime to create the impression that he’s nothing more than an eager pup who commands too much space for his own good. Unfortunately, Buck’s eyes tell a different story. There’s an odd cartoonish yet uncanny valley quality to Buck’s expressive features; throughout it just doesn’t seem whether or not anyone could fully settle with the hyperreal look.
But the essence of London’s original story remains unchanged. Stuffed into a crate and off to sea, Buck finds himself in the frosty Yukon wilderness in the midst of the gold rush, and forced into brutal training sessions with other canines as he learns the literal ropes of yanking a sled through the snow. But that essence just can’t overcome the sentimentalism of Michael Green’s script, which finds Buck first following the whims of a well-intentioned mailman (Omar Sy) before getting stuck with a more abusive taskmaster (Dan Stevens). Only the melancholic John Thornton (Harrison Ford, buried in a thick beard) provides Buck with some measure of genuine companionship, as the man reveals his tragic backstory and finds a new best friend to help him explore the wilderness before them.
Yet its that untamed and unpredictable wilderness that also runs into realness problems. The thing is, the realness of the setting can’t properly be appreciated when it’s viewed through the eyes of not only a cartoon dog, but a broad interpretation of a real dog. Though I’m all for using CGI animals, when your movie is all about appreciating the natural world, things can be kind of rough when you have your protagonist be so unnatural. With a cartoon Buck at the forefront of the narrative, everything else just feels like an amusement park. And, yes, I do get that this is a PG movie, but even with a great cinematographer like Janusz Kamiński lensing your film, throughout you faintly feel transported to the Yukon or really in tune with the spirit of the adventure as a whole. More often than not, I felt like I was just watching a video game where my avatar was a working dog.
When The Call of the Wild takes the humans out of the picture, the unnatural effects prove less of a distraction. A late-night showdown between the sled dogs finds Buck reaching for pack dominance, and it’s a vivid, wordless sequence that harkens back to the 1923 silent adaptation (it also helps that it’s at night, helping boost the VFX work). Similarly, Buck’s attraction to the proverbial call — and his surreal encounters with the wolves who beckon — have an ethereal quality that actually benefits from the subhuman characteristics of the motion-capture technology. But when Buck is in the presence of humans, things don’t always fare well enough. The dog’s journeys through human turf are often undercut by his all-too-human ability to interact with flesh-and-blood actors: it doesn’t look the greatest. And though Ford does give a soulful performance, his tender interactions with Buck — who engages with his master as if he comprehends every word — can be pretty unconvincing, to the point that you wonder why the studio just didn’t give-in and let the animal talk.
Other curious decisions percolate throughout, from Ford’s intrusive voiceover (which makes little sense in the end) to a one-note villain who pops back into the picture for no other reason than to move the drama into its climax and help the film’s straining search for conflict. As CGI atrocities go, The Call of the Wild is less egregious than 2019’s The Lion King or Tom Hooper’s bomb, even as it sits on the same continuum. Those movies removed humans from the picture with disturbing post-apocalyptic connotations, while this one sits at the center of a human-animal conflict that no amount of technology can possibly resolve. While not an outright disaster, The Call of the Wild‘s lacking, cartoony visual effects and uneven narrative prove to never fully be up to the task of answering its internal call.