Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 7, 2020)
Published in 1903, Jack London’s novel The Call of the Wild first received a cinematic adaptation via the silent screen in 1923. A few more takes on the property emerged over the decades, and London’s work gets another look with 2020’s The Call of the Wild.
Set in late 19th century, a young dog named Buck gets stolen from his California home. Buck finds himself transported to the Yukon and put into work as a sled dog.
When his owner loses his job, though, Buck ends up on his own until discovered by grizzled prospector John Thornton (Harrison Ford). The two bond and go through adventures as Buck attempts to find his place in the world.
Going into this theatrical version of Wild, I’d never read or seen prior incarnations. Frankly, the subject matter never much interested me, as that kind of “rugged real-life adventure” lacked much appeal to me.
Still, I try to remain open-minded. Given the fact the Jack London novel still seems popular after more than a century, I figured that perhaps it held charms that might work for me.
And perhaps Wild would succeed if told in a different manner. As depicted in this 2020 film, though, problems emerge.
In particular, Buck becomes a massive issue. When I saw trailers for Wild, it became patently obvious the movie used a CG character for our lead canine, and to call the end result unimpressive would stand as an understatement.
When I saw trailers for Wild, I figured they used temporary effects. Though the movie clearly aspired for a photo-real pooch, Buck looked more like ”live-action Scooby-Doo” than a believable dog.
Any hopes that “final product” Buck would seem more convincing abandoned ship quickly, as his goofy, cartoony look and behavior obliterated our ability to buy him as a “real dog”. This wasn’t just an instance of a trailer that featured rushed effects.
Wild cost $135 million, and no one can blame actor salaries for that sum, as Ford provides the only household name in the cast – and I doubt that he demands the “A-list” pay he got 20 years ago anyway. This means that $135 million likely went largely for visual effects.
All that money, and they couldn’t do any better than this? I don’t want to make my review all about the ghastly CG, but given the impact Cartoon Buck plays in the final product, it becomes impossible to avoid this topic.
Buck appears in almost every scene, and he never once comes across as a believable creature. While not literally as artificial and cartoony as the live-action Scooby-Doo, the two seem too close for comfort.
We know Hollywood can execute convincing CG animals, as the recent Planet of the Apes movies used non-humans as lead characters with solid results. Perhaps there’s some reason that canines can’t work as well as simians, but I can’t figure out why that would be.
I suspect part of the issue stems from the filmmakers’ choice to give Buck more than a few human-like qualities. While still mainly a “real dog”, the movie forces Buck to emote in ways an actual pooch wouldn’t.
These visuals create an off-putting clash, as Buck doesn’t seem anthropomorphized enough to work in that vein, but he also feels too fake to succeed as a real dog. The movie never settles the tone and this keeps us disengaged.
In addition, the basic quality of the animation and graphics simply don’t work. Buck feels detached from his surroundings and doesn’t mesh as part of the real world.
Buck also simply looks non-organic. He fails to display a natural quality that would let us buy him as real. We all have vast experience with actual dogs, so it becomes easy to pick up on the issues with this CG version.
And then there’s Buck’s eyes, which live firmly in Uncanny Valley. I get that eyes offer the most challenging aspect of CG characters, but other films succeed better than Wild, as Buck’s plastic, lifeless orbs ensure we never accept him as real,
If you can get past the problematic CG, you’ll probably find something to like with Wild, as the film itself comes with natural strengths. Generally episodic in nature, it moves at a decent pace, and at its heart, Buck offers a potentially engaging character.
No, this never turns into a plot-heavy effort, but it doesn’t need to go down that path. With a lot of action and adventure, the core boasts plenty of room to entertain, and the movie manages to execute these scenes with reasonable charm and energy.
The presence of Ford as our human main character helps. Now pushing 80, he remains as charismatic and compelling as ever, so he grounds the film well.
If only Wild didn’t suffer from an absurdly unconvincing canine lead, it might become a charming fable. Unfortunately, the awful visual effects severe limit its appeal.