Jack London’s 1903 novel, The Call of the Wild is a classic adventure story – though I suspect it’s much better known in America than it is here in the UK. It’s been filmed several times over the years, but what makes Chris Sanders’ 2020 version different from its predecessors is that all the canines featured here are CGI creations. (At least there’s no need for a ‘no animals were harmed in the making of this film’ caption.) For the most part, you wouldn’t know it if you hadn’t been told, but there are ocasional moments when something doesn’t look quite right, usually when the filmmaker’s desire to anthropomorphise his doggy cast slightly oversteps the mark.
It’s 1897 and Buck, a St Bernard/Collie cross, is the beloved pet of a California-based judge. Buck is adorable but extremely clumsy, always managing to leave a trail of devastation in his wake. It’s therefore hard to believe that his owner sheds too many tears when Buck is dog-napped and sent to Alaska, where the gold rush has created a lively market for his sort.
Initially Buck becomes a member of a sled team, taking the mail to far flung parts of the Yukon, under the command of the kindly Perrault (Omar Sy) and Françoise (Cara Gee). But a dog’s fortunes can change and he soon finds himself owned by the cruel, dastardly, gold-obsessed Hal (Dan Stevens), and – later on – by the (much nicer) John Thornton (Harrison Ford), who has come out to the wilderness after a family tragedy.
It’s all handsomely mounted with sweeping landscapes and big skies and you’ll probably find yourself pining for the wide open spaces and the Northern Lights. The story however, is somewhat fitful, most exciting in its earlier stretches (a sequence where the mail sled has to outrun an avalanche is so thrilling that it unbalances the movie somewhat). Later on, the tale becomes decidedly more somnolent as Thornton seeks solace in drink and Buck acts as his canine conscience. Those familiar with the novel will know that, through the last act, Buck is increasingly impelled to interract with the local timber wolves. This final stretch has, for understandable reasons, been changed somewhat from the original tale, but – as a result – feels a little too foreshadowed for comfort.
Niggles aside, this is a thoroughly decent adaptation, particularly suitable for younger viewers, though I can’t see it dragging too many of them away from the comic book franchises which still hold sway over their affections. Lovers of the orginal novel will, I’m sure, feel that Jack London’s brainchild has been treated with the respect it deserves.