Synopsis: Dog struggles to survive in the Yukon during the 1890’s Klondike Gold Rush.
Harrison Ford lights up the silver screen in the family-friendly classic adventure, The Call of the Wild. He’s grizzled, rumpled and grumpy. Fortunately he’s also got a heart of gold. His character crosses paths with a big, wooly Good Boy who has been dognapped. They both could use a friend. For the uninitiated…
The Call of the Wild, Jack London’s 1903 adventure novel, tells the story of Buck, a sled dog in the Yukon who must persevere in the face of human cruelty and brutal natural conditions. It’s also the story of the man who befriends him, John Thornton. But who cares about him? It’s the dog we’re interested in! Buck’s bildungsroman has found an audience with readers and movie goers for nearly a century. TCoTW was first committed to film in 1923 and starred a Saint Bernard. One can only hope that the silent film included intertitles like, “Arr–OOOOO, Buck howled.”
In a 1935 version, Clark Gable of Gone with the Wind fame played a rakish John Thornton with a glamorous love interest (Loretta Young). Sadly, Buck took a backseat to the Hollywood stars. Later versions dispensed with London’s description of a Saint Bernard-Scotch Collie mix, and usually cast huskies to play Buck.
Director Chris Sanders gets back to the original description and used his and his partner’s adopted dog Buckley as a model for the 2020 film. And this is where things get uncanny valleyed… while a real dog was scanned, this film’s Buck is CGI’d. We’re in a new era for animal depictions onscreen with CGI subbing for live animal performances. Especially since the CGI’d The Lion King people have been weighing-in on the effect, with many complaining that in spite of the advanced CGI, the work looks unnatural either because of the uncanny valley effect or the imposition of human expressions onto the animals. CGI’d animals are here to stay and, for the most part, it’s necessary progress. Abuse of wild and domesticated animals in entertainment has been well-documented over the years. Wild animals in particular, no matter how tame, are particularly stressed by forced contact, containment and performance demands. The Hollywood Reporter documented maltreatment of horses and other animals in a 2013 expose. And while quick, undemanding scenes with dogs can be humanely managed, an adventure film like TCoTW can place the dogs in perilous situations. In fact, the Dennis Quaid vehicle, A Dog’s Purpose was beset by negative publicity when video emerged of a dog onset being forced into churning waters in spite of their clearly terrified resistance.
So yeah, as far as Buck’s latest incarnation, I just went with it. I actually appreciated the artists’ work with the dog’s expressions and was glad to know that no animals were maltreated. Although I did feel a little sorry for Harrison Ford as John Thornton since, instead of spending time with a real doggo, he had to act opposite a person acting like a dog on-set. True story!
Alright, so the book TCoTW, was borne from London’s own observations when he was adventuring in the Klondike; prospectors were desperate for strong sled dogs to help them move their gear over the frozen landscape. In at least a few of his stories, dogs are forced to abandon any domesticated tendencies and fight and kill to survive. I’m afraid Buck does the same– ripping to shreds dog rivals and human outlaws. But no worries about taking the kids to this movie; Buck is kind and caring to everyone. He even takes mercy on a rabbit he’s chased down.
When we meet Buck, he’s a rambunctious young dog living the high life with a well-to-do family in California. But before long he’s dognapped and sold to cruel traffickers in the Yukon for the sled dog trade. Feelings of fear and confusion wash over Buck’s face! Along the way, he runs into John Thornton who will turn out to be Buck’s Good Samaritan when he’s suffering terribly.
For awhile Buck slaves for the Canadian Postal Service. The mushers are decent folk though and Buck quickly becomes a standout on the team. The lead dog is Spitz, a tough husky. He becomes jealous of Buck, glaring and growling at him. He also gives serious side eye to the other dogs when they respond to Buck’s overtures of friendships, like when Buck gave his share of frozen fish to a teammate. Before long Buck begins to have visions of a starry-eyed spirit wolf who guides him when he’s not sure which trail to take.
In between Buck’s harrowing escapes from avalanches and near drowning, we see John Thornton– let’s just say Harrison Ford — moping around in his shack- tent hybrid. He’s suffered a family tragedy and is apparently punishing himself by living on the margins in the Yukon. Harrison downs his booze, writes sad letters and never trims his silvery yak hair.
Meanwhile, things go from bad to worse for Buck when he finds himself the property of a cruel and foolish prospector played by Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens. His character, a fortune hunter, arrives in the Yukon with a man and a woman as companions. It’s not clear if this is some kind of thruple or not. They are ill-prepared for the punishing conditions; dressed in city clothes with supplies like silverware and a Victrola. Buck is forced to pull their massively weighed down sled. Both of the men are brutal fiends, but the woman at least hollers at them to stop abusing the dogs, led by Buck. (Sidenote: When the credits ran, I saw that Karen Gillan played the lady city slicker– didn’t recognize her. Partially because she has so little screen time. She deserves better; having won Movie Loon’s allegiance with her remarkable Amy Pond on Dr. Who.)
Dan Steven’s character is full-on ridiculous. He’s like the silent movie era creep who ties the lady to the train tracks. He even sports a twirlable moustache. Ostensibly, he hates Buck because he thinks he doesn’t work hard enough. But we know it’s really because he’s bitter that Buck is a million times stronger and smarter than him!
At a certain point Buck finds happiness with Harrison Ford. Buck listens without judgment to his wackadoodle plans to explore the frontier — I mean, the guy is well into his seventies! Buck also looks at him with prim disapproval when he’s laying into the booze too much. While Harrison studies maps, Buck meets a captivating she-wolf. Life is good.
Unfortunately, Dan Stevens’ failed fortune hunter is still out there and has developed a vendetta against Harrison. Ostensibly, he hates Harrison because he thinks he undermined his chances of a rosy future as part of a gold-rich thruple. Wrong! Harrison is a red hot zaddy and he knows he can never hold a candle to him. The audience knows it too because we saw the silver fox emerge shirtless from a brook. A reckoning is on the horizon.
The movie is not A M A Z I N G, but it is fun. Perfect for dog lovers and Harrison Ford fans. And I suspect that kids will really love Buck and want to stream the movie again & again.