All the main dogs and wolves in “The Call of the Wild” are of the CGI variety, and they’re so expressive we keep expecting them to start talking, a la their computer-generated counterparts in “The Lion King” and “Dolittle.”
This is an insurmountable problem, seeing as how the story is set in a realistic, late 19th century world — and yet the animals, in particular the lead dog, are so over-the-top expressive, the technology actually undercuts the emotional impact of the story.
In the best movies about pups and their humans, we get emotionally invested because that’s a real dog (or maybe multiple dogs playing one canine character) becoming a part of the family, getting into pickles, living a good doggie life, etc. (I recently rewatched a personal favorite, “My Dog Skip,” and it slayed me once again.)
Here, though the motion capture/CGI technology is a marvel to behold and there are moments when it looks like Harrison Ford is interacting with an actual giant dog named Buck, every time there’s a closeup of Buck or one of the other creatures, there’s something unsettling and artificial about the overly expressive eyes.
Real dogs can already reduce us to puddles with the emotions they convey. Amping that up with techno-fakery was a bad idea.
“The Call of the Wild” is the latest in a long line of adaptations of Jack London’s short adventure novel, which was published in 1903 and was set in the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s.
Everyone from Clark Gable to Charlton Heston to Rutger Hauer has played crusty old John Thornton, whose path crosses with a 140-pound St. Bernard-Collie mix named Buck, who led a posh and pampered life as a pet in California before he was stolen and sold as a sled dog — but nobody has been better suited to the role than Harrison Ford. He’s by far the best thing in this movie.
Thornton serves as the narrator for the story, which adheres to the main themes of London’s novel but drops a number of characters and plot elements while fleshing out Thornton’s personal history.
Much of the first half of “The Call of the Wild” focuses on Buck’s growth from a clumsy goofball to the lead sled dog for the postal delivery duo of Perrault (Omar Sy) and Francoise (Cara Gee). After the postal route is discontinued, the dogs are sold to Hal (Dan Stevens), an abusive twit of a gold prospector who dresses like a dandy, knows nothing about the Yukon and cruelly overworks Buck and the team.
Poor Dan Stevens. He’s a fine actor (you might remember him as Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey”), but he gives a desperately intense performance here as Hal, who becomes so unhinged he’s like a crazed stalker in a horror movie.
“The Call of the Wild” is most effective after John Thornton comes to the rescue of Buck, and vice versa. Ford gives a grounded, quietly powerful performance as a reclusive, regret-filled, self-pitying old-timer who crawls out of a bottle and finds a renewed sense of purpose when he sees the world through Buck’s eyes.
If only those eyes weren’t so distractingly incongruous.