GOOD DOG: Ford and friend in "Call of the Wild"
* * * (out of four)
With “The Call of the Wild,” I had one big surprise and one major disappointment.
My let-down was that the film does not use actual dogs; it’s all done with computer animation! But I was impressed that this enjoyable new version retains the book’s ending.
Published to wide acclaim and brisk sales in 1903, Jack London’s novel tells the story of Buck, a St. Bernard/Scotch-Collie mix who gets abducted from his cushy California home and transported to the Klondike, where he becomes an accomplished sled-dog -- and then slowly reverts to a wilder nature as he heeds the titular call.
The film stars Harrison Ford as John Thornton, who gets a lot more time here than he did in London’s book, where he appears much closer to the end.
Indeed, while London’s plot often feels loose and rambling, screenwriter Mike Green gives it a solid and appealing backbone. Handing voice-over narration to Ford, Green’s script introduces Thornton very early -- long before he and Buck later become fast friends.
Green also provides a distinct villain -- played by perennial good-guy Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Man Who Invented Christmas”). And the writer does an excellent job with the end, which might have alienated the young viewers at whom this film is so clearly aimed. It’s essentially what London had, but with a lot more closure.
None of this should surprise film-fans, as Green’s impressive resume includes “Logan,” “Murder on the Orient Express” and the amazing “Blade Runner 2049.” (For the record, Green’s “Orient Express” sequel -- “Death on the Nile” -- is due Oct. 9.)
Speaking of impressive resumes: Ford, now 77 and still in the running for a fifth Indiana Jones film, just keeps getting better and better. As with other older actors, increasing age -- layered on the strata of so many familiar roles -- lends compelling gravity to the actor’s craggy visage and gravelly voice.
Two other items that contribute to the film’s success: A gorgeous, soaring score by John Powell (“How to Train Your Dragon” and many others); and lovely photography by Janusz Kaminski, who has spent most of his career working with Spielberg.
So: Since this adaptation does just about everything right, why couldn’t they use real dogs in at least a few scenes? Granted, there’s much humanizing of Buck, which works nicely, even if it runs counter to London’s meditations on essential savagery. And I will admit to being fooled a couple of times: The huskies and wolves look particularly real. But Buck -- filmed using motion-capture and a human actor -- rarely does, which is somewhat distracting.
This lapse does not ruin an otherwise thoroughly entertaining film; but given London’s masterful and realistic treatment of canine matters, it’s more than a little disheartening that not one actual dog appears in the film.
Oh, well; at least they didn’t have to bother the American Humane society.
“The Call of the Wild,”
directed by Chris Sanders
Run time: 100 min.
Rated PG for some violence, peril & mild language