Whether it’s an alien who barely speaks like Stitch or a dragon who doesn’t talk at all like Toothless, character animation is director Chris Sanders’ area of expertise. Through facial expressions alone, Sanders has gotten so much emotion across without any dialogue. His gifts are on full display in The Call of the Wild, Wedge’s foray into live-action. Of course, Wedge doesn’t stray too far from his roots. The film’s main character is a CGI creation, as are many of the locations. For a film that largely exists within computers, however, Call of the Wild succeeds in immersing its audience in nature.
Based on the novel by Jack London, the film follows a mischievous yet lovable canine named Buck. Stolen from his owner (Bradley Whitford), Buck is sold and shipped off to Yukon where he goes through a variety of owners. Buck starts off as a sled dog under the command of two mail deliverers (Omar Sy, Cara Gee). He also finds himself at the mercy of the greedy Hal (Dan Stevens), whose mustache and hat immediately inform us that he’s the villain. The most prominent human in Buck’s travels is John Thornton (Harrison Ford), a gruff prospector who’s content with drinking himself to death after cutting ties with his family. Throughout his journey, Buck learns the meaning of being part of a pack and taps into his inner wolf.
While Buck was modeled after an actual dog, his mannerisms feel closer to the animals you’d see in a Pixar or DreamWorks production. Actually, watching the film, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Disney’s Bolt, which Wedge was originally set to direct. The exaggerated animation works to the film’s advantage, however. One of the biggest issues with Jon Favreau’s Lion King is that it strived too much for realism. The animals weren’t given the freedom to emote, sucking out the story’s personality and likability. In Call of the Wild, we can always tell what Buck is thinking by looking into those massive puppy dog eyes. Even when Buck doesn’t look real, he feels real. Likewise, the landscapes never fail to dazzle, despite the occasional obvious use of green screen.
While the animation can get a little cartoony at times, Wedge never goes too over-the-top. What keeps the film grounded is the wise decision to not have Buck or any of the other animals talk. After a decade that brought us Marmaduke, Show Dogs, A Dog’s Purpose, and two Beverly Hills Chihuahua sequels, this is beyond satisfying. There are no modern catchphrases, flatulent jokes, or overly cutesy inner-monologue. Just dogs being dogs with their body language doing all the talking. Wedge’s approach to the source material is surprisingly sophisticated, amounting to some poignant, intense, and quite grown-up moments.
At times, Call of the Wild demonstrates the makings of a modern classic like Old Yeller. The film suffers from a few pacing issues, however, as Buck jumps from one set of owners to another. This story almost feels like it could’ve been spread over multiple movies or even a miniseries. Certain characters disappear without any closure and a few people, namely Stevens’ Hal, are rather one-note. On the whole, though, Call of the Wild hits all the marks it needs to. It’s visually interesting, consistently atmospheric, and refreshingly treats its audience like adults. At the center of it is a strong lead performance from Ford. He may act opposite a CGI dog, but the way Ford looks at Buck always comes off at sincere and invested. He believes Bucky is there and thus, so do we.