Movie review

“The Call of the Wild” is rated PG. That is important.

It’s important because as everyone familiar with Jack London’s classic 1903 novel knows, its hero dog Buck is clubbed, whipped and later ripped in a vicious dogfight in the early sections of the book. That would rate at least a PG-13, if not a hard R, if it were ever faithfully conveyed to the big screen.

What the makers of this latest “Call” (there have been several earlier adaptations dating back to a 1923 silent version) have therefore done is to file off the rough edges. No traumatic beatings. No blood. It’s family-friendly now. Bring the kids.

Unlike many of those other iterations, this one tracks the London source material with a reasonable degree of fidelity.

As in the novel, Buck is a big, friendly St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix owned by a rich California judge (Bradley Whitford) who is dognapped by a treacherous member of the household staff, sold, clubbed into submission and then shanghaied north to the Klondike gold fields in the 1890s. The beating scene is fleetingly brief and staged in silhouette. Trauma defanged.

He’s put in harness and becomes the member of a dogsled team hauling mail to prospectors drawn to the frigid fastness of the Yukon in the hunt for the yellow stuff.

Advertising

“He was beaten, but he was not broken,” intones a grizzled Harrison Ford, well-cast in the role of the tale’s main human, sourdough John Thornton.

In fact, Buck thrives, thanks to kindly treatment by a pair of mushers played by Omar Sy and Cara Gee. Strong and smart (and did I mention big? 140 pounds), he quickly becomes an alpha dog and the leader of the team.

Thornton enters the picture early when he first sees Buck fresh off the boat in Skagway, and much later when he intervenes to rescue the dog from an abusive owner after the Sy and Gee characters depart the picture.

Thornton narrates the story in voice-over, revealing himself to be a man seeking solitude in the far north following the death of his son and the collapse of his marriage. Ford, muted and reflective, is very effective conveying Thornton’s heartbreak.

He observes that Buck is a very special animal, and later, when he takes ownership of him, senses the dog, now in a land of wolves, is feeling primordial stirrings of kinship with the feral creatures. London had a term for those feelings: the call of the wild.

Along with that PG, another term is central to this picture: CG. Buck is a computer-generated animal, patterned after a St. Bernard/Shepherd mix  found by director Chris Sanders’ wife, Jessica. Buck’s  motions and expressions were generated by an actor named Terry Notary, who was then subbed out and replaced via motion-capture technology.

Advertising

With expressive eyes and powerful movements, Buck is incredibly lifelike. The filmmakers do go overboard at times in scenes showing him hiding liquor bottles from the despairing Thornton or going full Lassie when he rescues a character from drowning in an icy river.

All other dogs in the picture are computer creations as is the wintry scenery, including the shimmering Northern Lights. The movie was filmed in California, but you’d never know it.

The essence of the London story is retained, with stouthearted Buck being annealed by adversity, overcoming brutality, confusion and loneliness and then responding to the kindness of Thornton to become the leader of the pack.

And all that is accomplished with a soft touch. What we have here is the call of the mild.

_____

★★★ “The Call of the Wild,” with Harrison Ford, Omar Sy, Cara Gee, Dan Stevens, Bradley Whitford. Directed by Chris Sanders, from a screenplay by Michael Green. 100 minutes. Rated PG for some violence, peril, thematic elements and mild language. Opens Feb. 21 at multiple theaters.