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The Call of the Wild (2020)

Call of the Wild, The Poster

Having not read the book and only seeing the Charlton Heston 70s movie version when I was in middle school (as well as cheating a bit by scanning the Wikipedia page), I only had a vague idea of the story of "The Call of the Wild" going into this new version, starring Harrison Ford. What I ended up getting was a new appreciation for and interest in checking out the original novel, and a good, fun old-fashioned adventure.

The story is about Buck, a St. Bernard/Scotch Collie who lives a contented life in 1890s Santa Clara, despite being a bit of a headache for his masters due to his destructive size and large appetite. When he is kidnapped and taken to the Yukon, however, he goes through an epic journey involving several masters, that brings him closer and closer to his wolfish ancestors.

Directed by Chris Sanders of "Lilo and Stitch", "How To Train Your Dragon" and "The Croods" fame, its been widely noted how most if not all of the animal animation, including Buck, is CGI, and many have considered that a detriment to the overall film. I, however, didn't mind it for several reasons. 

First, Buck and the others are made so likable, interesting, or engaging through their facial expressions and actions, as well as the performances the human actors gave opposite them (which I'll get to in a second), that I was immediately taken and able to buy them as characters, following them along through the story. Second, considering Sanders' animation background, the complicated and dangerous stunts some of the animal characters had to do, and the recent controversies involving animal actors that have happened, it made a lot of sense as to why they went in this direction (although I couldn't help but wonder at times what a fully animated "Call of the Wild" would look like, but this was more of an observation and pondering than a complaint). Third, and I think this is the biggest reason, is that it captured the heart and spirit of the original story, reminding me of the similar and cherished "dog and wilderness" adventure films that I grew up with like "Balto", "Iron Will", the "White Fang" movies, and this year's highly underrated "Togo", as well as certain other animal films like "Black Beauty", "The Black Stallion", and "Hidalgo".

The film's at its absolute best in the first half with Buck interacting with the other dogs and his first few masters, with wonderful performances by Bradley Whitford as the exasperated judge who is also Buck's first owner and Omar Sy and Cara Gee as Perrault and Francoise, mail carriers and Buck's second owners, and of course, Harrison Ford as John Thornton, Buck's fourth owner. Ironically, when Buck comes into Thorton's possession and they set off on their adventures, I felt a little less engaged, due in part because the pacing and editing of some of those scenes felt a little too quick and jumpy, Thornton's character started to take the story away from Buck a little bit, and it was foreshadowing an event that I could see coming (which I found distracting and maybe which led to the other two issues).

However, when that event occurred, I found myself in tears, and I realized it was because of Ford. Ford's performance here is so subtle and understated that it could be overlooked, but along with his relationship with Buck, is 100 percent effective and engaging. Its easy to just think of Ford as the legendary action guy we grew up with due to his legendary roles of Indiana Jones and Han Solo, and  in movies like Air Force One and the Jack Ryan films, but he's shown himself to be a great actor all around in underrated works that should be seen like "42", "Working Girl", and "Witness". 

Funnily enough, besides this, "Cowboys and Aliens" and "The Frisco Kid" from the 70s, I'm surprised Ford hasn't done more Westerns, as he plays the rough, grizzled cowboy type very well (considering James Mangold is now the new director of Indiana Jones 5, he produced this film and grizzled cowboy type movies are his specialty, maybe that's the direction he'll take that film. We'll have to wait and see).

Really, other than that and a corny line here or there, the only other issue I had was that Karen Gillan is listed fairly high up in the credits, but she had barely three to five minutes in the film overall and even less presence as the companion of who would become the major villain, so it was a bit odd as to why she was there in the first place (she possibly had a bigger role and it was cut in editing and or she was most likely shooting Jumanji: The Next Level at the same time though, so it kind of makes sense).

Lastly, while the adaptation does soften some of the edges of the original material, it still provides the full emotional power of the characters and story. It's a shame that this hasn't done so well so far, because overall, "The Call of the Wild" is a solid film; a good old-fashioned adventure for the entire family and a great way to introduce the book to kids, a great way to become reacquainted if you read it as a kid, and a great way for someone who has never read it to be introduced to it. If you're not bothered by the CGI (or even if you are, I still think you'll get something out of it), I definitely say see it!

Rating: 3.6 stars out of 4


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