Dogs are man’s best friend.
Or, so the saying goes. Chris Sanders’ live-action directorial debut, “The Call of the Wild” is a testament to that proverb.
Buck, the St. Bernard /Scotch Collie mix is a rambunctious dog. He’s lovable in every way and gets into trouble very easily. Sanders guides the opening minutes of the film with a level of graceful humor as Buck rambles through the Miller home, waking family members up and getting himself into trouble.
Buck is of course not graceful, however the amount of love and affection he has for the Millers, especially the Judge, played by Bradley Whitford, radiates through the screen, setting the tone for the adventure to come.
Michael Green’s (“Logan”) screenplay, a second adaptation of Jack London’s classic novel of the same name is set in the 1890’s Klondike Gold Rush. Despite laws, man is still bent on finding a quick route to fortune, and in that vein, Buck attracts the attention of a scoundrel who scoops Buck up in the middle of the night.
Sanders works overtime to build our care for Buck’s plight in captivity, while defining his boundaries. When he was with the Miller’s he had freedom, even when he was shut out of the house, banished for ruining a family picnic. We understand that Buck is a survivor, however Sanders’ overwrought push to establish Buck’s dominance in the beginning seems a bit self-serving, if not self-gratifying.
Buck then crosses paths with Perrault (Omar Sy), a mail courier for the Canadian Post. Perrault is never on time; his sled team consists of an alpha dog with a rather human sized ego. This is one of the early signs that, although Buck never really smiles at us as if he was a hand-drawn two-dimensional animal, there is always a twinkle in his computer-generated image.
That is one of the film’s fatal flaws. Although we’re taken out of the story for a moment to realize that Buck is a collection of ones and zeroes, the character feels like a human being, acts like a human being, so that by the time the third act arrives, we can relate, perhaps too well, to what Buck endures.
Speaking of the third act, early on in Buck’s stint with Perrault and Françoise (Cara Gee), he encounters Harrison Ford’s John Thorton, an aimless wanderer with no desire to find the gold, but to be left alone. An unfortunate turn of events lands Buck at the hands of Hal (Dan Stevens) and then again with John.
It is when Buck is with John that the story really finds its footing. It’s too bad that it takes nearly an hour to get to that point; we’ve spent nearly a third of the movie investing in Buck who doesn’t necessarily earn our emotional investment when John comes along and we start the emotional investment process again.
This is not to say that the process isn’t worthy. There are some genuine moments between Ford and Buck; but Buck’s near-human qualities renders John’s journey flat, add to which the Hal character seems out of place. Admittedly without it, there would be no antagonist for Buck’s journey, nor for John’s.
Salvation can be a powerful thing, a theme “The Call of the Wild” gets in spades.
“The Call of the Wild’s” journey is an imperfect one, but man’s best friend has a purpose and a journey to meet our destinies.