No dogs die in “The Call of the Wild.” I mention this for two reasons: First, it’s a dramatic change from the source material, Jack London’s 1903 short novel in which canines are shot, starved to death, killed in fights with each other, and, in one particularly harrowing episode, drowned in a frozen lake. It’s understandable that the filmmakers behind the sentimentalized remake would soften the realities of canine life in the Gold Rush-era Yukon for today’s audiences, but it also complements the most newsworthy and important element of the film’s production: the debut of a completely motion-capture dog.
The replacement of live animal actors with CGI or motion-capture technology has been a gradual change, but “The Call of the Wild” is a watershed moment. Audiences have accepted talking apes (the recent “Planet of the Apes” series) and superpigs (“Okja”), but the uncanny valley is much wider when dealing with man’s best friend. “Call of the Wild” succeeds through its miraculous use of technology, nuanced understanding of man’s relationship with dogs, and a story that ties it all together. We can feel secure knowing that no dogs were harmed, onscreen or off.
Despite 117 years of progress, the basic plot still resonates. “The Call of the Wild” is the story of Buck, a suburban dog with a penchant for mischief. One night, he is stolen and sold as a sled dog. He passes through various owners and teams, all the while shedding his domestic instincts and building up his survival skills. His wildness. It’s cultivated by a kind pair of mail carriers (Omar Sy and Cara Gee), who make him lead sled dog after he demonstrates his benevolent leadership by sharing his food with the other dogs. His weakness is exposed when he is sold to a cruel, headstrong owner (Dan Stevens) and his ineffectual wife (Karen Gillian), who are seeking gold in the mountains with few survival skills, and eager to blame the dogs for their failures.
Eventually, he finds companionship with John Thornton (Harrison Ford), a lonely divorcee grieving the death of his son. It’s a beautifully effective performance by Ford, playing a character who, through caring for an animal, allows his broken heart to heal. Acting without a human partner for much of the movie, Ford commands our attention through his innate star power and a willingness to appear weak and vulnerable. Aided by a trembling voice and haunted eyes, he can unveil torrents of emotion with little apparent effort. It serves the story well. John saves Buck’s life on one occasion, and Buck, through his steadfast companionship, seems determined to return the favor.
Much like its source material, “The Call of the Wild” functions as a grand adventure story. The gorgeous, CGI-enhanced Alaskan landscape is always a pleasure to look at, and the script cycles through encounters with dangerous animals, happy hijinx, and tear-jerking moments with a pleasing rapidity. Still, beneath these superficial pleasures is a spiritual core that makes it more substantial. John and Buck are trains who meet while going in opposite directions, with John healing his broken heart and inching closer towards a return to society, and Buck letting his wild side overtake the domesticity in his soul. They represent the dichotomy of civilized life, and the film, especially when it slows down to breathe in the sights and sounds of the Alaskan wildlife, allows us to meditate on these ideas.
In a sense, it’s a perfect story to employ this groundbreaking motion-capture technology. As brought to life by the special effects team, we grasp the meaning of his every facial expression and bit of body language. It’s the kind of deep understanding people have with their own dogs, but rarely with a strange dog onscreen. Buck has a full range of human emotions and reactions assigned to him by the filmmakers, and it brings his domesticity into even greater relief. When we look at Buck, we see the human being in him, and it makes his innate desire to return to the natural world bittersweet.
To be absolutely clear, “The Call of the Wild” is what’s known as a three-hanky affair. If you have ever loved a dog, you’ll be a blubbering mess by the end, but unlike “Old Yeller” or the recent “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” it won’t be because of anything as simplistic as a death scene. Rather, it’s the way the film so incisively exposes both the tragedies and the tender mercies of the human-dog relationship, the way we save each other as much as we can, for as long as we can, before one day our differences pull us apart.
My Rating: See it in the Theater