Review by Sean Boelman
The newest version of the classic Jack London story, The Call of the Wild attempts to blend a live-action cast with uncannily expressive CGI animals. However, because of the distracting visuals, the entertaining and timeless story is unable to have the impact that it likely would have had if the film had been a bit more polished.
The movie follows Buck, a pet-turned-sled-dog as he moves through owners trying to survive and growing in character along the way. Anyone who is familiar with the classic source material will be familiar with the general arc of the film, and while there are some welcome changes (the racism is thankfully eliminated), there are ultimately very few surprises as a whole.
That said, the movie still manages to be thoroughly entertaining. Clocking in at around an hour and forty minutes, the film moves by very quickly and never outstays its welcome. There is a reason that this story has been beloved by generation upon generation and gotten so many adaptations. Yet with the overly modern touch of CGI, this version of the tale will likely feel dated in only a few years.
The one real perk of the overuse of CGI is that it allows the animal characters to have a great deal of expressiveness. The story is told mostly through narration by Harrison Ford’s inexplicably omniscient narrator, but the mannerisms of the animals are packed with emotion. Of course, this is something that could not have been done with real animals, as they largely lack this ability.
Apart from the visual effects, the movie mostly looks very good. Although the modern technology involved in creating the animals would make one think otherwise, the film still keeps its turn-of-the-19th-century setting, and it does a very good job of immersing the viewer within the time period thanks to excellent production design and costuming.
Another strength of the movie is its talented human cast. Harrison Ford leads the ensemble, and he is admittedly the weakest link. It often feels like Ford is phoning it in, or simply giving an appearance for the sake of a paycheck. The rest of the cast, though, is quite good. Omar Sy plays one of Buck’s owners, and he is more charming than ever, and Dan Stevens is good (albeit over-the-top as one of the human antagonists).
However, despite the efforts of the cast, the development of the human characters is admittedly lacking. While this is mainly because the focus of the film is on the animals, not their human companions, it is still disappointing that the movie did not expand upon any of the archetypes. With some added depth, these human characters could have added another level of emotion to the film.
Although families will undoubtedly be entertained by The Call of the Wild, the poor CGI is too distracting for the movie to be particularly memorable. As the first film released by the re-branded 20th Century Studios, this will also likely end up being their first dud.
The Call of the Wild opens in theaters on February 21.