In what seems to be a theme for family films in 2020, The Call of the Wild‘s previews did not inspire much hope. Harrison Ford sharing the screen with a large yet goofy CGI dog for nearly two hours was not what anyone in my circle deemed a good time. But as it turns out, there is more to this latest adaptation of Jack London’s classic Yukon Trail novel than meets the eye, and it’s all thanks to a man named Terry Notary.
Notary, a Cirque du Soleil performer and actor who has learned the craft of motion capture alongside the likes of Andy Serkis, is the beating heart beneath The Call of the Wild‘s CGI flesh. While Buck’s over-exaggerated facial features may take a good 15 minutes to get used to, Notary’s expressions and movements bring life to the performance and make the St. Bernard and sheepdog mix feel as real as any dog you’ve had.
The Call of the Wild Cuts Out Some of the Meat
There’s not much to say about the storyline of the film that you didn’t already glean from your 8th grade English class, as Michael Green’s screenplay sticks to the basics of the novel. If anything, it’s been pared down to avoid several dog deaths that may be too gruesome for family viewing. (Not to spoil a 117-year old book, but let’s just say that Buck is a lot less “wild” and his masters a lot less cruel than they are in the original.)
You might be forgiven for thinking that Buck has it too easy throughout, but the added weight of a backstory for the character of Jack Thornton (Harrison Ford) helps to balance it out a little bit. If the film fails on any narrative front, it’s simply that it doesn’t provide as much justification for the “call” that Buck heard and must struggle against. The charm of this Call of the Wild adaptation lies instead with Chris Sanders’ directing, which adds a touch of warmth and humanity throughout the cold and vast Alaskan wilderness.
Furthermore, Notary’s fabulous performance as Buck is surrounded by some truly high-caliber actors who interact naturally and effusively with the most important dog in the Klondike. Omar Sy and Cara Gee in particular, as the mail-carrying duo of Perrault and Francois, give sparkling performances that bring life to the first half of the film. Dan Stevens and Karen Gillan show up in the back half, but their roles are little more than cameos due to the movie’s desire to keep things strictly PG.
Harrison Ford is a Class Act
Even though he is in The Call of the Wild a lot less than the previews (and the fact that he’s Harrison Ford) would suggest, Ford’s performance does have a big impact on the quality of the film. He told Variety that the film had a lot to say about human characters, and he carries that conviction through with his performance.
Granted, the narration is a little grating at the start of the film – especially as he and Buck haven’t even met yet, and anyone who knows the ending of the story knows why it doesn’t make sense as a “look back.” But once he appears in the flesh, his deep respect for his animal companion and the even deeper regret for his recent tragedies make for a compelling human hero in the midst of a tale ruled by animals.
Overall, The Call of the Wild is a bittersweet story with some very committed performances, as well as a fitting first title for the 20th Century Studios name. The film premieres in theaters on February 21, with a runtime of 110 minutes. It is rated PG for some violence, peril, thematic elements and mild language.