Woof. And not in the good way. “The Call of the Wild” — the first film released under Disney’s new 20th Century Studios moniker — is what happens when CGI goes too far (or perhaps not far enough).
Slow, emotionless and boasting fairly mediocre production values, this misguided kid movie turns Jack London’s classic tale about the natural world into something barely recognizable as part of that world.
Buck (motion-capture performed by Terry Notary, “The Square”) is a large half-Saint Bernard, half-Scotch Shepherd dog owned by Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford). After destroying a celebration the Judge’s family worked hard to put together, Buck is made to sleep outside, where he is kidnapped by a local who sells him off to a ring of dognappers who ship him to Gold Rush-era Alaska.
He quickly learns the cruelty of humans, specifically one who beats him with a club, but also meets new masters who guide him along his journey, from the couple (Omar Sy of “Jurassic World” and Cara Gee, “The Expanse”) who purchases him and trains him to be a sled dog, to the cruel, treasure-obsessed Charles (Dan Stevens), to his final “master,” John Thornton (Harrison Ford). Along the way, Buck slowly sheds his domesticated past and embraces what nature intended for him to become.
There is something seriously wrong with an adaptation of a classic novel when, an hour into the film, you can’t tell what the story is actually about. I’ll admit, I haven’t touched the book since I last put it down sometime in the third grade, when most public school kids are made to read it. But midway through the movie, I pondered the intentions of screenwriter Michael Green (“Blade Runner 2049”). The novel is heavy with one of the themes London is best known for — nature vs. civilization — but this “The Call of the Wild” seems far more concerned with trying to figure out how to make a CGI dog seem believable. (And it fails even at that).
Buck’s evolution/de-evolution into his primitive nature is no longer the focus; instead, I saw a writer struggling to figure out how to Disney-fy such a harsh tale of true nature. (Disney picked up the film in its purchase of Fox, but the movie’s intent to be enjoyed by the entire family was clearly always there.) The small injections of humor here and there feel like a desperate attempt to find the lightness that has inherent in Disney films, particularly Disney films about animals, for decades.
Speaking of animals, we have to talk about the unnecessary overuse of CGI. Every single animal in “The Call of the Wild” is a product of CGI, and not once is the audience fooled into thinking these animals actually exist. There’s a deadness to the eyes that, for this dog owner, was a bit uneasy to watch. At moments, it feels like the film can’t decide how humanized they wanted Buck and the other animals to feel, whether to give them human emotion or to let their animalistic traits take over. As a result, neither is ever captured quite properly.
The worst of these moments occur when the dog’s basic nature is supposed to take over — the fights between the dogs, running in the wild and the very sudden (and pretty scary for little kids) moment where a vicious dog kills a cute little rabbit.
The terrible CGI is really just par for the course for the film, where the production design looks like it was unfinished to save on costs and then just covered with fake snow to try to provide a sense of the deep freezing conditions of the Yukon. The small Alaska town set where Buck and Thornton meet provides no sense of environment and looks like it was just plopped in the middle of a sound stage, freshly painted façades with nothing behind them. In some senses, it looks like the kind of ghost town you’d see in a local amusement park, just way more commercial and sanitized.
Of the cast, perhaps Dan Stevens is the one for whom I feel the most sorry. While the rest of the ensemble is given some further dimension (Sy and Gee are defined as adventurers who love each other, Ford is a grumpy but caring old man coming to terms with his grief), Stevens is left with an overdone caricature of a villain. He certainly gives the role his all; kids might be frightened because, as written and performed, it is way too over-the-top.
Warning to parents of little ones: I wouldn’t recommend taking any child under the age of 8 to see this, especially if you own pets yourselves. There are several moments that are very harsh and can be scary, even traumatic for little ones to watch. Watching an animated Simba watch his father die won’t scar a kid like watching a big, bumbling house dog get hit by a club. Save them, and yourself, the nightmares.