A domesticated St. Bernard/Scotch Collie dog named Buck is stolen from his Santa Clara, California home and sold to freight haulers in Yukon. Crossing paths with a man named John Thornton (Harrison Ford), the two embark on an adventure where Buck finds his true place in the world.
Ah yes, the good old fashioned “adapted from a book” movie. These can honestly be some of the greatest films sometimes. Novels are obviously well known for being incredibly rich with their stories, intricate details, and length. It’s one of the many reasons why a ton of people say that the book is better than the movie. In the book, there are most likely hundreds of pages chalked full of great detail about the characters, story, and world. In a movie, on the other hand, the filmmaker does not have hours to explore these themes and stories, but rather, just about two hours only. Therefore, it can be extremely tricky to adapt any novel into a feature-length film, especially if it is a novel as beloved as Jack London’s The Call of the Wild.
Originally published in 1903, the novel tells the exact same story set in Yukon of a dog who is stolen from his home and must find his place in the world, all while meeting a caring and friendly man named John. Throughout the decades, many readers all around the world have fallen in love with this beautifully told and emotionally moving story of man’s best friend, and it is not hard to see why. Each page in the book is filled with great storytelling, a break-neck pace, and interesting characters that you love to follow and want to learn more about. It’s also a novel that had some grittiness to it. While children have loved the story as well, London did not shy away from putting some bleak moments in his story.
The original novel’s story and characters were just two of the biggest reasons The Call of the Wild had the potential to be a great film. The other reason being that legendary actor Harrison Ford portrays lead human protagonist John Thornton. Although Ford made an appearance in a film last year, it was only for a few seconds. While his scene was shocking and extremely emotional, it reminded audiences around the world why we love this guy. Getting to see him back on the big screen in a major role in Chris Sanders’ latest feature brought a gigantic smile to my face.
In the role of John Thornton, he brings a sense of warmth that only Ford can bring. Every single time he is on screen, he radiates a sense of immense confidence and friendliness. You feel like you are best friends with him almost. Seeing his bond with the lead dog Buck was remarkable and truly heartwarming and it was by far the strongest aspect of this film.
Although Ford is certainly terrific in this film and is his best work in quite a few years, it would have been nice to have seen just a little bit more of him. The Call of the Wild has a running time of one hundred minutes, and it takes about thirty-five minutes or so for Ford’s character to be properly introduced. Before he is introduced, we follow Omar Sy’s Perrault and Cara Gee’s Françoise, two of Buck’s caretakers. They are eventually shoved completely out of the movie and it felt extremely out of left field.
At its core though, this was an impressively helmed film. Sanders does a great job of adapting this beloved story to the big screen for a new generation, and he shows a ton of skill in his craft. The way he frames certain shots and his fast-paced storytelling, for the most part, makes this movie fun to watch. There are some moments where the pacing drags and there are some scenes where there certainly is some downtime (particularly in the first act), but at the end of the day, he managed to craft a film that is going to capture the hearts of families, children, and adults alike.
While its story is one that was deeply inspiring and uplifting to watch, there never really feels like a sense of urgency is present. Since the film is rated PG, you know in the back of your mind that not a whole lot of surprises can be in store because of that rating. Nothing brutal or gritty happens in the book except for one sequence in the final ten minutes, which was a bit of a shame. It is a massively fun movie to watch after the slow first act is over, but even still, there never feels like there is a sense of urgency.
But an element that was absolutely phenomenal regarding The Call of the Wild was its cinematography by Janusz Kamiński. In the past, he has served as director of photography on films such as Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One and Lincoln, and also shot Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, another Harrison Ford-lead movie. Despite his past work being truly remarkable stuff, this may be one of his best efforts to date. Nearly every frame on display looks absolutely beautiful, with Kamiński’s awe-inspiring cinematography blending beautifully with the gorgeous scenery of the sunny mountaintops and the warm and inviting forests. It all looks so beautiful and is never dull to look at.
Something that a ton of people on the internet are talking about is the computer-generated imagery that is present for the animal characters here, namely the lead dog Buck. Getting an actual dog to do some of these scenes in this film would have been an immense challenge, and therefore, the filmmaker’s opted to use CGI here, and for the most part, it did not bother me. Yes, there are definitely some moments (especially early on), where it is incredibly evident that you are not looking at a real dog. But after about twenty to thirty minutes, the fact that you are looking at an artificial dog honestly leaves your mind because you get so wrapped up in the story.
All of the technical aspects aside though, The Call of the Wild did impress me for the most part. At the end of the day, a great story is what matters the most when it comes to film, and the story, while familiar and unsurprising, was still a blast to watch. Man’s best friend has not had a tale this inspiring and heartwarming in years.
The Call of the Wild tells a story that, while incredibly familiar and unsurprising, is still greatly inspiring and heartwarming, and is a great display of Harrison Ford at his charming best.
Overall Grade: B
MPAA Rating: PG for some violence, peril, thematic elements, and mild language
Directed by: Chris Sanders
Distributed by: 20th Century Studios
Release Date: February 21, 2020 (United States)
Running Time: 100 minutes