'The Call of the Wild' is one of the great reads and deserves to be treated well on film - it was one of the first books that I read cover to cover and I got the whole point of the story the first time through. This wasn't because I was some kind of child prodigy, but because Jack London was a truly fantastic writer.
So, after watching the trailer for Chris Sanders' new adaptation, a gooey, good-natured foray into family-friendly canine-based entertainment, I was prepared to hate it out of existence.
During the late 19th century Gold Rush, Buck (animated, but played by Terry Notary, 'The Square', a motion capture artist and former Cirque du Soleil gymnast) is a mischievous Saint Bernard/Scotch shepherd mix breed who lives with a wealthy judge (a barely used Bradley Whitford, 'Get Out'). When his 'Beethoven'-esque hijinks see him cast out to spend a night on the porch, he's poochnapped and shipped off to the Yukon. Brutally clubbed into submission and sold off, he finds himself on the sled team of two kindly postal workers, Perrault (Omar Sy, 'Transformers: The Last Knight') and his assistant, Francoise (Cara Gee). Buck learns to be an alpha dog and less of a wimp.
When the posties are forced out of business by the arrival of telegram technology, Buck and his canine chums are suddenly at the mercy of a cruel new owner: would-be prospector Hal (an overacting Dan Stevens, 'Her Smell', the Nicolas Cage of our generation). All the while, Buck keeps crossing paths with two entities that ultimately shape his future: the kind yet curmudgeonly John Thorton (a terrific, mournful Harrison Ford, 'Blade Runner 2049'), and an unearthly lupine spirit/metaphor with glowing yellow eyes.
Probably best known for directing animated films like 'How To Train Your Dragon' and co-scripting the 1994 'The Lion King', Chris Sanders is an incredible director, but one who has always butted heads with executives over theme and tone in his movies. Remember when he was making 'American Dog', and Disney kicked him off it because it was too surreal, and it got reworked (almost completely) into 'Bolt'? Sanders is also the reason 'Lilo & Stitch' is very different to most Disney fare from that era.
Sanders' first venture into (mostly) live-action is a very sanitised version of Jack London's original novel, with a lot of the violence and darker themes and characterisations cut out. Buck, notably, doesn't become anywhere as aggressive and violent as he became in the book, mostly staying the same sweet, goofy dog the entire story. In fact, the film has to have Harrison Ford narrate how wild Buck is becoming because it's barely happening onscreen. The "call" itself, by the way, is visualised as a giant black wolf that Buck hallucinates, exactly like the one that appears in Wes Anderson's 'The Fantastic Mr Fox'. Oddly enough, Buck sees the wolf a lot during the first half of the film, but then the thing just disappears until the very end.
Also, in the film, the sled dogs are much friendlier and gentler, instead of the vicious, half-feral mongrels from the book. In fact, Buck forms a very emotional and loving bond with the mushers and sled dogs in this version... who then proceed to completely drop out of the story, unlike the novel where every dog outside of Buck ends up dying in some tragic way. Slightly less jarring is setting up an entirely new subplot and character development for John Thornton (Ford's character only shows up for the last 30 pages or so of the book).
The "call" itself, by the way, is visualized as a giant black wolf that Buck hallucinates, exactly like the one that appears in Wes Anderson's 'The Fantastic Mr Fox'.
And, of course, while CGI allows for a variety of stunt work and emotiveness from the animals that you can't do with real creatures... Buck's CGI still looks weird. Even more bafflingly, the other CGI dogs, wolves and bears are actually quite well done. Buck has a lot of human facial expressions and mannerisms, while the other animals look and behave like animals. I was particularly impressed with the white wolf Buck befriends; she looked very real, and showed emotion while still moving and behaving like a wolf. Meanwhile, Buck has the deductive capacity of an NYPD detective. I laughed aloud at the scene where he deduces the root of Thorton's drinking problem ("Ruff! Hey John, don't you think you've had enough?") and was half-expecting him to perform some emergency surgery on the man after he is wounded by the inexplicably hyper-motivated villain.
'The Call of the Wild' was written by Jack London in 1903. Times and attitudes were vastly different to 2020, so 20th Century Fox and screenwriter Michael Green took a vivid work of literature written directly from the lived experiences of an individualist soul, a window into a now lost world, and bleached out the major lessons from it. These lessons were learned at great personal expense by the author. They also ditched the cruelty, masculinity tropes, environmental exploitation, and terrible portrayals of Native Americans/First Nation peoples.
That said, Sanders' film still lightly brushes on some of London's themes, like the difficulty of life in the harsh Klondike and the constant struggle between humanity and the wild. It also has some beautiful visuals and nice performances, and from time to time it does manage to be funny or heartwarming or even tear-jerking.
While 'The Call of the Wild' is ultimately a weak adaptation of the novel - it may be impossible to ever adapt it faithfully - it's still an okay family flick hampered by an over-reliance on CGI.