March 28, 2020

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Old dog's new tricks not convincing

Use of CGI canine in 1903 Jack London story turns drama cartoonish

Here’s the problem for dog people: they go to dog movies because they love dogs, but almost all dog movies are about dogs in distress, facing arduous journeys of hunger, thirst, danger, deprivation and mistreatment. It’s a strange dynamic.

There are no actual dogs involved in this uneven animal saga, based on Jack London’s popular 1903 novel about the adventures of a big St. Bernard-Scotch Collie cross named Buck. All the dog work is done through a combination of motion-capture human actor (former Cirque du Soleil performer Terry Notary is our canine star) and computer-generated effects.

That’s a good thing, in the sense we don’t have to worry about the on-set working conditions of real dogs.

The dog Buck was created using a motion-capture actor and CGI. (Twentieth Century Fox)

The dog Buck was created using a motion-capture actor and CGI. (Twentieth Century Fox)

It’s also a bad thing, as Buck’s awkward, in-between status — convincingly real and doggish in some ways and exaggerated and cartoony in others — seems to reflect the movie’s confusion about what it wants to be.

Relying on the same fusion seen in the hybrid live-action/animation versions of The Jungle Book and The Lion King, director Chris Sanders (How to Train Your Dragon) sometimes veers toward a Disneyfication of the source material, with souped-up, special-effects-laden stunts and lots of kooky canine slapstick. When Buck joins a sledding team, the dogs’ faces get animated amplification to the point you expect them to start talking among themselves.

At other times, the movie leans into London’s rugged realism. While smoothing off some of the source’s rough edges, scripter Michael Green (Logan, Blade Runner 2049) attempts to explore London’s turn-of-the-20th-century notions of nature and civilization and his explorations of individualism, socialism and social Darwinism. At one point, a brutish man proclaims "the law of club and fang," as he beats Buck into submission with a heavy wooden stick.

The literary seriousness and the semi-animated fun never quite mesh in The Call of the Wild. This is not quite a grown-up film, but it could be too intense for some kids.

Buck starts as an outsized presence in the California home of Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford). In this genteel domestic setting, Buck is a china-rattling, carpet-rucking, roast turkey-stealing menace, but he’s loved and pampered all the same.

Harrison Ford is delightfully grumpy in The Call of the Wild. (Twentieth Century Fox)

Harrison Ford is delightfully grumpy in The Call of the Wild. (Twentieth Century Fox)

Buck’s journey really begins when he is stolen and shipped up north to be a sled dog in the Yukon gold rush. His first gig is with two kindly mail carriers, Perrault (Omar Sy) and Françoise (Canadian Cara Gee). As part of a sled team making arduous 700-kilometre treks, Buck learns some lessons about pack dynamics and leadership.

Buck is later sold to the villainous Hal (Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey), who leads a party of ignorant, gold-hungry greenhorns from the south. They pack their sled with champagne instead of much-needed food and drive their dogs to the breaking point.

Finally, Buck finds a kindred spirit, loner John Thornton, played by Harrison Ford at peak cragginess. Harrison also supplies the film’s gruff voice-over narrative.

John has been given a sympathetic reason for leaving his family in the south and lighting out for the territory, but Ford is still gloriously grumpy. (The fact that in his quiet scenes with Buck, the notoriously curmudgeonly Ford is scratching a motion-capture human actor behind the ears is almost funnier than the film’s intentional comedy.)

Even as he bonds with John, Buck increasingly hears the call of the wild, represented by a magical wolf spirit, luring him away from human companionship and into the high country.

Omar Sy is kindly mail carrier, but Buck isn't with him long. (Twentieth Century Fox)

Omar Sy is kindly mail carrier, but Buck isn't with him long. (Twentieth Century Fox)

London’s notion that dogs are really just wolves in collars, yearning to run free, neglects what we now know is over 20,000 years of co-evolution with humans that make that hard line between civilization and nature a lot more complicated. And it might seem unlikely to 21st-century viewers, whose dogs can seem more attuned to the call of the peanut butter treat.

Still, Buck’s story, at its strongest points, does celebrate the dog-human connection. And where the story goes wrong, it’s certainly not Buck’s fault. There are no bad dogs, only bad dog movies.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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