By Maureen Lee Lenker
February 17, 2020 at 03:00 PM EST
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Credit: 20th Century Studios

The Call of the Wild (2020 movie)

type
  • TV Show

While every dad is different, there’s no denying the existence of the enigmatic subgenre we’ll lovingly dub the “dad movie.” It’s more a feeling than any specific collection of tropes, but generally dad movies center on something stereotypically masculine — be it sports or the great outdoors — in an emotionally resonant narrative that features a gruffly relatable male star.

The latest adaptation of Jack London’s 1903 novel The Call of the Wild is, in some ways, the ultimate dad movie. The book is a core dad text, replete with stories of craggy prospectors in the Yukon, the purity of Mother Nature, and the innate wildness of man’s best friend.

Directed by How to Train Your Dragon’s Chris Sanders, the film follows Buck, a St. Bernard and Scotch shepherd mix who is stolen from his cushy home in California and sold north to Alaskan dog sled teams. He initially finds a rough go of it, abused by his captors and buyers, until he’s paired with a team of dispatchers (a lively, endearing Cara Gee and Omar Sy) running the Yukon mail service. There he learns what it’s like to become part of a pack, facing off against the team’s alpha, husky Spitz. His journey takes several more twists and turns until he befriends John Thornton (Harrison Ford), a man broken by the death of his young son, searching for answers in the wilderness.

This take on The Call of the Wild hews closely to the original novel in many respects, making understandable adjustments to the more overtly racist and colonialist plot points. With those changes in place, it explores the same core themes: the relationship between man and beast, and man and nature, the vagaries of rugged American individualism, and the mysterious call of the wild.

There is one glaring shortcoming, and it’s that Buck is not a real dog, but a CGI model created from a digital scan. There’s a list of great reasons to not use real animals on set, but it can’t be denied that technology still can’t quite get this where it needs to be. Because it turns out the uncanny valley isn’t just for humans — dogs are welcome too. Buck is an adorable creature, one we should easily should fall in love with, but every time I got close, the dead feeling behind his eyes got in the way. Eventually I sank into it, relishing the cute canine behaviors he models, but it took nearly half the film to just let it go.

The film is elevated by its performances, particularly by Ford. The actor, 77, has aged into the world-weariness that’s defined him from his earliest days on screen. Thornton is a grizzled take on the scoundrel with the heart of gold Ford has made an art form (and a career) out of — a hermit drowning his grief in liquor until Buck forces him from the emotional isolation he’s made his refuge. It’s his acting that makes the CGI Buck the most alive, easing our belief in their interactions as man and his best friend.

There’s a palpable bond between them, manufactured entirely by Ford. Thornton’s layers of loss, wistfulness, and eventual reawakening to the joys of living are calibrated with an exactitude only someone of Ford’s subtle skill could muster. He also narrates the film, explaining Buck’s journey and lending the story a wry gravitas.

His supporting cast includes Bradley Whitford as Buck’s short-lived first owner, Karen Gillan in a throwaway role as a spoiled socialite, and Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens as gold-crazed Hal. Stevens in particular shows new range as a cruel, self-obsessed member of the upper crust who finds himself out of his depths in the Alaskan wilderness (even though he’d die before ever admitting as much).

One other fun tidbit: This Call of the Wild marks the first film produced by the old Fox regime to be released by Disney under the rebranded 20th Century Studios label. Coincidentally, the last movie to feature the original 20th Century logo back in 1935 before merging with Fox was, you guessed it, The Call of the Wild, starring Clark Gable and Loretta Young.

As that evidences, The Call of the Wild has been adapted by Hollywood several times over the years. Though this tale of redemption and survival doesn’t feel particularly relevant or essential in today’s media landscape, it still has the capacity to entertain and move, well over a century after the story first was published. And Ford’s presence and performance inject it with a wild heart it desperately needs.

If audiences are looking for something new or revelatory in the story, they’re barking up the wrong tree. But sometimes we just need to answer the call, the call of the good old-fashioned dad movie. B

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The Call of the Wild (2020 movie)

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