Given that The Call of the Wild is very much centring itself around a dog – arguably the one animal that audiences universally can’t handle seeing in life-threatening distress – it’s understandable if you’re already dreading the canine’s fate before you enter the theatre. Whilst director Chris Sanders (Lilo & Stitch, How to Train Your Dragon) does indeed put the dog in question (Buck) in perilous situations, and it would be best noted that the violence in some scenes suggests physical abuse towards said dog too (the material is perhaps a bit too distressing for younger viewers), the evolution of Buck as a character outweighs any of the could-be-traumatic material.
This is in large part thanks to actor and stunt co-ordinator Terry Notary, whose movements were captured to meld with the canine they modelled Buck’s aesthetic after. This isn’t quite Andy Serkis-level motion capture brilliance ala Planet of the Apes, but you often forget that Buck is a CGI creation throughout thanks to the trick-of-the-mind the film manages. Much like 1995’s Babe, Buck is given humanistic traits (physical reactions, expressions, etc) that often push the boundary of believability (at one point he convinces Harrison Ford’s gruff, isolated traveller John Thornton to give up drinking), but seeing as how some of the situations Michael Green’s script calls for would be near impossible with an actual dog – animal-on-animal violence, human-on-animal violence, the drastic weather conditions of the icy Canadian setting – the CGI decision, distracting as it may be, makes sense; plus, following the backlash A Dog’s Purpose managed when footage of its animals being mistreated went public, The Call of the Wild‘s decision is all the more sound.
But just how exactly does a dog like Buck come to be in these life-or-death situations? Following a brief introduction that suggests he lives a pampered, though oft-disciplined existence under the rooftop of the stern Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford in little more than a glorified cameo) before being dog-napped for a serious cash payout, Buck ends up among a pack of similarly-sized dogs acting as a delivery team for a Canadian mail service fronted by Perrault (Omar Sy) and Francoise (Cara Gee). Despite Ford’s top billing, he doesn’t really come into play until the film’s second half, following Perrault and Francoise’s service termination which results in Buck, once again, being sold off, this time to the archetypically villainous Hal (Dan Stevens, enjoying his snack on the scenery) whose short temper is taken out on Buck, an act that Ford’s lonely but capable adventurer doesn’t take too kindly to.
Basing itself off Jack London’s 1903 novel, but skewering the narrative for a more modern audience without sacrificing any of the story’s emotional edge, The Call of the Wild may be a little too saccharine and hopeful for its own good at times, but it’s difficult to not be swept away in its spirit; the old soul of Buck and the film’s old-fashioned nature compliment each other in a manner that’s so sorely missed from large studio productions these days. As much as the film’s advertisements may allude to a consistent adventure film, it’s surprisingly how heavy it leans into its spiritual aspect, driving home the themes of what it means to reconnect with yourself and nature after having detached yourself for so long.
As much as this film relies on the technological advancements of computer-generated effects to properly tell its story, it certainly isn’t using them in a way that masks any narrative short-falls. Buck as a CGI creation isn’t a distraction tactic, it’s a necessary additive to construct a fully realised character, a character who just so happens to be a dog. Whilst parents of young kids should be on guard for some of the film’s more intense moments, The Call of the Wild is nostalgic, return-to-the-origins-of-family-viewing material that takes pride in its heavy-handedness and provides a welcome escape from the loud explosiveness of tentpole cinema.