The Call of the Wild was directed by Chris Sanders and is the latest live action update of the classic Jack London novel. This one is packaged as more of a family film, so some of the rougher edges and graphic imagery that this story could lend itself to have been cut out. The result is a PG retelling that works well from a story and pacing aspect. The problem is that Sanders’ background in animated films (he directed Lilo & Stitch, How to Train Your Dragon and The Croods) informs a lot of the choices he makes with this live action nature pic.
The first half hour in particular is far more cartoon-ish and slapstick than even a family friendly adaptation of London’s work should be. The cartoon-ish feel is exacerbated by the CGI work. The problem with CGI and motion capture is that you have to be very careful not to get carried away with the expressiveness of the animals. Unfortunately, Sanders isn’t careful. Perhaps he and his team over-corrected in response to complaints about the uncanny dullness of last year’s remake of The Lion King. At any rate, the visual effects team tries to achieve an animated film level of expressiveness on Buck’s face that pushes the limits of CGI. As a result, Buck’s reactions look too exaggerated for the live action environment he inhabits. It makes me wonder why everyone involved didn’t just make an entirely animated film instead.
There are other distracting instances of Buck’s movements clearly resembling that of a human on all fours rather than those of a dog. There’s a glaring example of this in the scene just before Buck meets John Thomton (Harrison Ford) for the first time. Buck touches snow, something he never experienced in California, and steps into it reluctantly. Anyone who owns a dog or has even spent time around them probably knows how it looks when a pooch refuses to step into the snow or acts like they are walking on nails when they do. Buck’s movements in this situation do not resemble an actual dog, but rather a human disguised in CGI fur doing yoga very badly.
Most of the other CGI animals look a lot better, and aside from the CGI, there’s enough to like about this film. Two-time Academy Award winner Janusz Kaminski provides competent cinematography throughout, including a few moments that flirt with being spectacular. I was really into the scene where Buck battles Spitz, a rival sled-dog, for the role of leader. The fight occurs against the backdrop of the northern lights and is fun to watch, until Sanders and Kaminski decided to infuse the moment with slow motion, thereby turning the sequence into a cheesy canine version of Rocky.
The film improves significantly once Harrison Ford shows up. He is perfectly cast as John Thomton. It’s not the most demanding work Ford has ever done, but it’s fun to see him enjoying a role instead of going through the motions for Lucasfilm. I like him a lot more in this role than Charlton Heston, but then again, I like everything about Harrison Ford more than Charlton Heston.
This is far from a bad film. I had a good time watching many parts of it and the target audience (families) will probably be more than happy with the final product. I have complaints about the technical side of things, but I also think some critics have been too harsh. I won’t name names, but I’ve seen multiple D ratings from critics, and in most cases their only complaint is the CGI. They have a right to use whatever criteria they want to grade movies, but I don’t think the CGI alone was enough to knock this one down to a mere grade level above what most critics rated Cats. How soon some of us seem to have forgotten what truly awful and nightmarish D/F grade worthy visual effects really look like. I don’t normally assign grades to films. I think people can tell how I felt by the analysis and opinions I provide, but in this case I’d say The Call of the Wild falls solidly in B- to B territory.