Some stories stand the test of time as we find new ways to tell them over and over again. Jack London’s story of Buck, the dog who was kidnapped from his comfortable life and shipped to the Alaskan wilderness was written in 1903. The first film adaptation was a silent version made just 20 years after the novel’s debut, and Hollywood has been retelling the story ever since.
For this version, the filmmakers used CGI animals to avoid placing any real animals in danger. Unfortunately, director Chris Sanders gives into the temptation of having the animated animals do things that real creatures can’t do. Not only does Buck ricochet off walls like a rubber ball, but he also emotes with human-like expressions. What works well in a completely animated film feels off when only the animals aren’t real.
Before Buck arrives in Alaska he has his first encounter with abuse. The moment is brief. But the point is made. Soon Buck is purchased by Perrault (Omar Sy) for his sled dog team. Perrault and his partner Françoise (Cara Gee) deliver the mail, and Perrault has never once been on time. It’s out on the trail that Buck first hears The Call of the Wild, represented by a huge black wolf. Following his instincts, Buck takes the position of lead dog and soon the team is running better than ever before.
Nothing lasts forever, and though it breaks his heart, Perrault is forced to sell the dogs with the arrival of telegraph lines. Villainous Hal (Dan Stevens) buys the team, which suffers under his abuse and incompetence before Buck is eventually rescued by John Thorton (Harrison Ford). Lest small viewers worry, we are later told that the rest of the team escapes. Thorton is a broken man, who ran to the wilderness and the whiskey bottle after the death of his son and the collapse of his marriage. Together he and Buck find the peace and freedom they need to heal and become their true selves.
Finding fulfillment is a major theme. With Buck’s Call represented as a spectral wolf, there’s an unmistakable spiritual element in play. While dogs may not have access to the Holy Spirit, believers will see a familiar parallel in a supernatural calling. There is something dangerous about Buck’s spiritual guide. Some may see it as evil, with its long fangs and glowing eyes. But since it directs Buck to do good things, I interpret it differently. Answering a call requires risk, and to face that risk requires a tenacity that those who lack it will misunderstand.
Composer John Powell provides a lively score to the period setting, though it’s not quite enough to bring this mishmashed, live-action/CGI hybrid to life. While all the right parts are present and on full display, the film never quite manages to come together.
Some stories stand the test of time. This adaptation will not. But it still may serve as an introduction to the classic tale and an engaging way to pass two hours. (20th Century Studios)