A key stage in the metaphorical dust settling after the Disney/Fox merger was the unveiling of the 20th Century Studios name. While the Fox identity has gone under the new regime, one of its last films – and one of the first to bear the new logo in UK cinemas – is coincidentally something of a return to the good old days of Disney family adventure movies. We all remember them: full of pioneer spirit, courage and animals – especially the animals.
Not that Jack London’s The Call Of The Wild is any stranger to screens big and small. The big screen version from the 70s starred Charlton Heston and two TV incarnations followed. This new outing has some equally serious star power –Harrison Ford – but make no mistake, this isn’t his movie. It’s all about Buck, a huge St Bernard/Scotch shepherd cross who starts off life as a spoiled family pet in the 1890s, only to be dognapped and sold into a totally different world, where he’s beaten and starved. But you can’t keep this dog down and he finds a new life as part of a dog team, pulling a sled delivering the mail to the remote settlements in the wilderness that’s The Yukon in the gold rush years. It’s a tough life, but one that gives him a more sympathetic master and leads to his meeting the man who will make the most lasting impression on his life, the reclusive John Thornton (Ford).
Given that Buck has some harrowing experiences at the hands of men – that early brutal master, a greedy gold hunter (Dan Stevens) among others – it’s remarkable that he still retains his trust in human nature and has an unusual affinity with people, shown in his expressions and gestures. Which is partly the reason behind his CGI creation on screen (his physicality comes from motion capture legend Terry Notary). His action sequences would have been beyond even the best canine performer, and the same can be said for his expressions, so making use of the latest technology is a smart move. And, in the main, it’s convincing to the point where you almost forget what you’re watching isn’t the real thing. The other animals – wolves, dogs, a bear among them – all come from the same stable and, apart from the occasional split second, they’re all equally lifelike as well.
Chris Sanders’ direction isn’t in the slightest embarrassed at aiming for your heart strings – he has form with the likes of Lilo And Stitch and How To Train Your Dragon – and he’s right on target here while staying the right side of cloying sentiment throughout. His vision of this classic adventure has heart to spare but there is a dark side that gives it depth, much of which surrounds Thornton and his reasons for shunning the outside world. Nor does he hold back when it comes to the animal fights – Buck’s encounter with the leader of the dog sled pack is full of bared teeth and whimpers – making the film less suitable for the youngest members of the family. The human characters are all very much supporting acts to Buck and company, although Ford is sympathetically introverted as his last master, and Untouchable’s Omar Sy positively glows as the long distance mailman. A shame, then, that Karen Gillan is wasted in a mere handful of scenes and Stevens is little more than a moustache twirling panto villain.
But as a throwback to those adventure films from childhood, The Call Of The Wild is refreshingly unexpected. Its landscape may be freezing and unforgiving, but its spirit and compassion constantly shine through to make this an old school piece of heartwarming entertainment. One that’s almost impossible to resist.
Drama, Adventure | Cert: PG | 20th Century Studios| UK, 19 February 2020 | Dir. Chris Sanders | Harrison Ford, Omar Sy, Dan Stevens, Karen Gillan, Terry Notary, Cara Gee.