It doesn’t always connect, but ‘The Call of the Wild’ is a likable family adventure

“The Call of the Wild” – “He had been suddenly jerked from the heart of civilization and flung into the heart of things primordial.” – Jack London, “The Call of the Wild”

“How much is that doggie in the window?  The one with the waggly tail.” – Patti Page, “(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window”

Buck is an aristocrat of sorts.  Perhaps an aristodog?  (Many apologies for going there. Couldn’t resist.)

He’s a handsome, 140-pound St. Bernard-Scotch Collie, and the Miller Estate, located in Santa Clara, Calif., is Buck’s home.  Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford) and his wife Katie (Jean Louisa Kelly) run it like a Montessori school, at least in Buck’s eyes.  He basically does as he pleases, which means rambling through the hallways and crashing into doors.  The Millers still love their sociable, kind and clumsy dog lots and lots, but he’s a bit wild.

For reasons not engineered by the Millers’ design, Buck is dognapped from beautiful, sunny California, and before you can say “endless piles of snow”, he finds himself in Skagway, Alaska and running with a dog sled team that delivers the mail to the Yukon and back.  Thankfully, the mail route owners Perrault (Omar Sy (“The Intouchables” (2011)) and Francoise (Cara Gee) are friendly and treat these canines with respect, but scampering through this harsh, frigid environment is awfully hard work, and Buck is a fish out of…well, you know.

“The Call of the Wild” is a new experience for director Chris Sanders.  It is his first live-action movie after three animated features, including “How to Train Your Dragon” (2010), but he brings his much-needed talents to this project.

“This is the first time the book from beginning to end has ever been attempted.  One of the reasons that we’re able to actually attempt (it) is that now, we can animate all the animal characters,” Sanders said in a Feb. 2020 interview with The Movie Times.

Buck and the other sled dogs are indeed animated, but admittedly, the special effects – at first – seem a bit shaky (at least to this critic), when Buck rummages through the Miller Estate.  On the other hand, after 10 or 15 minutes of screen time, a natural comfort of settling into the story takes over, and Buck looks real and believable.

Sanders and screenwriter Michael Green ensure that the audience continues to subscribe to this on-screen take of Jack London’s novel by making a very smart choice:  Harrison Ford narrates the story, rather than the dogs speak or think out loud.  Although some films with talking four-legged friends – like “Babe” (1995), “The Lion King” (2019) or even “The Cat from Outer Space” (1978) – have a nestled place in moviedom, thankfully in “The Call of the Wild”, the computer-constructed pooches – including our sympathetic hero – behave like dogs and aren’t asking one other, “Hey, when will we break for dinner?”

As far as breaks from the book, Sanders’ film follows the novel’s overall arc with some discernible – but not distracting – changes along the way.  Also, with the movie’s PG-rating, it is more family-friendly.  “The Call of the Wild” should be just fine for kids, but note that The Law of Club and Fang dabbles into Bambi’s mom vs. a cruel hunter-territory, and the formidable great outdoors provides noteworthy reasons for angst.  Also, note that Dan Stevens plays such an over-the-top creep as the villain, that Nicolas Cage would stand up and offer 10 seconds of sincere applause.

Certainly, Harrison Ford deserves applause with his turn as John Thornton.  Like Buck, John earns our sympathy, as he struggles for answers as well.  Unlike Buck, he willingly left his home for snowy isolation, but John eventually becomes this doggie’s owner and friend, and like most healthy relationships, love is a two-way street.  Sanders also includes a positive message about refraining from alcohol, which is a nice touch.

“The Call of the Wild” has pleasant, warm touches along with a rugged sense of adventure.  Now, the actual calls into the wild feel thin and forced, and the Alaska/Yukon wilderness seems to volley from actual footage to something manufactured, but this movie is an enjoyable ride, and it will encourage millions to pick up London’s novel for the first time in years or for the very first time.  Hey, Buck, John, Sanders, Green, and London might just inspire you to stroll by a nearby pet store and look in the window for a St. Bernard-Scotch Collie or pack your bags and head north.  Way, way north.

⭐⭐1/2  out of  ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image and Trailer credits: 20th Century Studios

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