Last week in my “Sonic the Hedgehog” review, I lamented that the title character was a cleaned-up cartoon rather than the “realistic” CGI abomination we were promised that would have made the movie a classic of terrible cinema. This week, with “The Call of the Wild,” we do indeed get a “realistic” CGI abomination of a main character, but unlike “Sonic,” the movie surrounding the character is halfway decent. It’s no fun having a distracting, unnerving computerized animal in this one.
The film, based on the classic novel by Jack London, follows a dog named Buck from his spoiled life in California to his dognapping and sale into service to his stint as a sled dog under a determined mailman (Omar Sy) to his role as a companion to grizzled loner John Thornton (Harrison Ford). The “spoiled” portion is full of predictable dog hijinks. He’s told not to eat food off the picnic table, but then he walks up to his owner (Bradley Whitford) with a drumstick in his mouth, and you know he’s eaten food off the picnic table. I know this sounds horrible to say, but I was glad when Buck got dognapped so this could no longer be a “dog eats food off the picnic table” movie.
Buck is shipped to the Arctic, and cruelly taught obedience by a guy with a club that Buck frankly seems perfectly capable of taking. He learns the value of teamwork while helping to pull the mailman’s sled, so much so that he eventually replaces the power-hungry lead dog and helps the mailman be on time for the first time ever. Then he’s sold to arrogant fortune hunter Hal (Dan Stevens), who wants him for a trek to a legendary river of gold, even though the guy seems incapable of forging even the tamest of streams. Thornton rescues Buck from the villain and the two go off on adventure of their own, where Buck struggles to fight the temptation (“call” if you will) to run off with a pack of fellow canines. It turns out that the two are camping at the site of the very river Hal wanted to find, and he tracks them down for a confrontation, even though our heroes braved an arduous journey and Hal has been established as terrible traveler in a plot hole I’m not willing to overlook.
Whatever problems there may be with the script (and don’t blame London, Hal doesn’t enjoy such longevity in the book), they’re nothing compared to the problems with the very look of Buck. It’s not like he’s “animated” in the traditional sense, he’s rendered using motion capture technology. Let’s say the movie wants Buck and Harrison Ford in the same scene, one where Ford talks to the animal. Forget having Ford talk to a real dog or even a blank space where a dog will be added later. He has to talk to a guy wearing a highly sophisticated motion capture suit for a movie set in the 19th century. Ford actually pulls it off, it’s the visual effects that fail. Motion capture is great for fantastical creatures, but the technology hasn’t yet reached the point where I can look at a motion capture dog and recognize it as an actual dog.
There are actually a number of positive elements to “The Call of the Wild”: Buck’s journey is compelling, the scenery is beautiful, Sy is affable in his role, and Ford gives a dignified performance. But it’s all undone by the fundamental truth that the dog looks phony. I suppose it could be worse. Buck could be designed to look like an animal/human actor hybrid, but I don’t see any non-musical being dumb enough to do that.
“The Call of the Wild” is rated PG for some violence, peril, thematic elements and mild language. Its running time is 100 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.