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Movie Review: The Call of the Wild (2020)

Article by: Alice-Ginevra Micheli

 

The Call of the Wild is the most recent iteration of Buck’s story, a pampered pooch who gets sold as a sled dog and ends up having to survive many perils along the way, including the wilds of the Yukon. Based on the pre-eminent Jack London novel (also known for such classics as White Fang), the original tale has much more violence in it than this ended up revealing. Focusing more on the relationship between dog and man, it’s an interesting, positive turn that indicates the optimistic direction that director Chris Sanders chose to steer his project in.

From the outset, there was a fair amount of cynicism surrounding this most recent Fox-turned-Disney adaptation. A familiar story with a four-legged character at its center who was made using computer generation technology. Given the amount of successful films out there that use real, trained animals for their emotional protagonists, it called into question whether this exercise in technology was required at all.

As mentioned, the first question is whether the use of fully CGI animals was one that was necessary and/or executed well. The answer is that overall, it was… okay. While not necessary, what this choice managed to achieve was to give Buck a wider spectrum of emotion that wouldn’t be possible with a real canine. This translated across all the animals, where the audience was able to recognize our own emotions of fear, jealousy, anger, and happiness in the face of man’s best friend. What this also ended up creating, however, was an unmistakable feeling of uncanny valley whenever an animal’s motions were too smooth, or they showed a bit too much feeling on their face and through their actions.

Although a lot of the film is made up of non-humans, there’s still a wide cast of actors that help bring this story into reality, none more so than Harrison Ford as Buck’s ultimate friend, John Thornton. A man who tries to escape life after his own was broken from a family tragedy, the bond that is evident between the pup and his master friend is undeniable from the moment they set eyes on each other. With a good chunk of the runtime being only with these two abandoned souls, a surprising amount of tenderness and connection can be felt during their most pivotal scenes. This was only possible due to Ford’s excellent portrayal of Thornton and his touching dimensions of emotion that Ford hasn’t displayed in a long time.

Another great turn is that of Omar Sy, as the mail-delivering Frenchman Perrault. Leading a sled-dog team across the nation, Perrault is the first human to show Buck some kindness after his initial kidnapping trauma. It is also because of him that Buck begins to tune into his keen animal instinct and begin his journey to become the alpha he was always meant to be. Sy’s performance expertly straddles the line between ambitious master and gentle friend, and it’s no wonder he is able to give our doggy protagonist the discipline he desperately needed.

On the flip side of this is Dan Stevens as the incorrigible Hal, a bourgeoisie villain with a fraught need to get rich quick. With literally no redeeming features whatsoever, whether it’s his absolute disdain for animal life or his questionable need for revenge, he is not someone the audience is really able to connect with on any level. In fact, in a film where most of the characters are fleshed out, realistic representations of humanity, it feels like Stevens is an animated, literal mustache-twirling dastardly criminal who doesn’t really belong in this particular world. His character seems out of touch and a bit jarring, and I often found myself wanting to move on to the next scene than bear him any longer.

All in all, this is a predictable but lovely tale. It’s about the triumph of both the animal and human spirit, and how sometimes in order to find who you’re meant to be, you have to travel beyond anywhere you’ve ever been. It’s an easy people-pleaser that the whole family can enjoy for a Friday movie night. There’s nothing too special about what’s happening, but there’s also nothing particularly bad either.

If you’re a fan of animal films, and can handle some emotional turmoil, then this is a good option for you. Prolific in its source material, and forward-thinking in its use of technology, The Call of the Wild will make its way into the softness of your heart, if that’s the sort of thing you’re looking for.

 

MG Rating: 7/10

Alice Ginevra Micheli
Her love of film, novels and all things media led her to study Screen and Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne. Fascinated with the culture of entertainment today she keeps up to date on all the news and going-ons within the industry. When not traversing the internet and cinemas, she spends her time catching up on whatever TV or book series she's currently obsessed with.

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