Beautifully photographed, the latest film version of The Call of the Wild is a warm and family-friendly adventure story. Perhaps too family-friendly.
1. What is it about?
As you may remember from junior high English class, Jack London’s classic novel, The Call of the Wild, tells the story of of Buck, a happy family dog who finds himself dog-napped in California and sold to a dog-sled team in Alaska. His experiences in the Yukon gradually strip away the veneer of civilization and Buck’s instincts take over as he rediscovers the essence of his wolf ancestors within. The film follows the same basic story as the novel, with a deliberate softening of most of London’s dark and violent moments in order to produce a PG-rated version.
2. Will I like it?
There’s a lot to like. The cast provides engaging performances, the scenery and photography is beautiful, and the story, though lacking much of the power and drama that made the book a classic, is still a solid adventure story with an emotional core.
3. Will my kids like it?
Yes, especially if they are young and haven’t read the book.
4. Do I need to have read the book to enjoy it?
It’s probably better if you haven’t, to be honest. London’s novel, a mainstay of middle school reading lists for the past century, is an unflinching look at the brutality of nature, whether the unforgiving terrain and weather of the Klondike, the cruelty of some people, or the kill-or-be-killed ethos of wild animals. Of course, times have changed, and a book that was once recommended for grades 4 through 8 is now considered too scary and violent for 13-year-olds; a faithful adaptation of Call of the Wild would no doubt have to be at least rated PG-13, possibly R, so this may indeed be the only acceptable way to adapt the story for the people it was intended to reach. Chris Sanders and screenwriter Michael Green have sanded down all those edges. Where London tells a story of a family pet who survives the rugged Yukon and goes feral, Sanders and Green trim that down to a story of a dog who “learns to be his own master,” rendering the title hyperbole.
The resulting film is entertaining, but somewhat inconsequential, though it may spur some viewers to read the source material.
5. Is the rating appropriate?
Yes. The film minimizes or eliminates the book’s bloody confrontations—dog vs. dog, dog vs. bear/moose/wolf, dog vs. man, and man vs. man, and substitutes dog vs. the natural world, inventing an avalanche to test Buck’s courage and resourcefulness, and later sending Buck and Thornton down whitewater rapids, both scenes intended to add excitement and convey danger without involving any bloodshed.
6. When is a good time for a bathroom break?
About an hour in, when Thornton and Buck get into the canoe, you have almost 5 minutes of what’s basically a travelogue as they make their way down the river. Try to get back before they hit the rapids, but some of that’s in the trailer.
7. Is that a real dog?
Yes and no. Buck’s appearance is scanned from a real dog, a Saint Bernard-German Shepherd mix, picked up as a stray in Emporia, Kansas and adopted by Chris Sanders and his wife Jessica Steele-Sanders. His movements are performed by actor Terry Notary using motion-capture. Notary previously performed in King Kong: Skull Island, the Planet of the Apes films, and as Groot in the Marvel films. He makes a pretty convincing dog.
8. Who are the human characters?
The most prominent is of course Harrison Ford as John Thornton, a man who has fled his old life and traveled to the Klondike, not in search of gold, but in an effort to run away from his pain. French actor Omar Sy (Jurassic World) and Cara Gee (The Expanse) play Perrault and Françoise, a pair of couriers for the Royal Canadian Mail who drive the dogsled team that Buck is part of. Dan Stevens, Karen Gillan, and Colin Woodell (The Purge) are the world’s most incompetent would-be prospectors, who acquire the dogs and don’t have a clue how to handle them.
9. Was it filmed in the Yukon?
No, all of the scenes involving actors were shot in the Southern California town of Santa Clarita. The producers built a town, dug a river, and brought in massive snow-making machines. Everything anyone touches is real, but a lot of green-screen was used to extend the buildings and fill in the terrain. Also, all of the dogs are CGI, but scanned from real dogs.
10. Do I need to stay to the end of the credits?
Nope. The whole movie is in the movie. Credits fade to black, the end.