While The Call of the Wild was made by 20th Century Fox – now 20th Century Studios – and is only being distributed by Disney after the Fox merger, it’s a film that certainly fits into Disney’s recent modus operandi of making animal stories without any actual animals. This is far from the first adaptation of Jack London’s adventure novel, but it is the first to tell this story with a completely CGI dog. Understandably, it would be impossible to train a real dog to do all the things this version of this story asks of Buck, the St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix the story centers around, but it’s this decision that immediately gives The Call of the Wild a false feeling that never quite goes away.
The Call of the Wild seems just as inspired by A Dog’s Journey/A Dog’s Purpose as it is by London’s 1903 book. The Call of the Wild starts with Buck as a pampered pooch, but soon, he’s dognapped and sent to the Klondike region of Alaska, where he works as a sled dog. Along the way, Buck learns how to care about others and discovers more about his animal nature. Buck also changes the life of his many owners, such as his dog sled runners, Perreault (Omar Sy) and Françoise (Cara Gee), the tragic drunk, John Thornton (Harrison Ford) and the cartoon villain come to life, Hal (Dan Stevens).
Up until now, director Chris Sanders has worked solely in animation, co-directing Lilo & Stitch, How to Train Your Dragon, and The Croods. As a full-blown animated tale, this version of The Call of the Wild certainly could have worked. But as it is, the uncanny valley between Buck and his other animated animal pals versus the rest of the film is always distracting and never comes off as natural. This is especially true since Buck doesn’t always act like a dog. Sanders makes it so Buck reacts as if he’s a human rather than as a dog, with over-the-top eye movements and insane intelligence played for laughs that don’t work.
Yet even with this strange balance of animation and reality, the bond between Thornton and Buck becomes The Call of the Wild’s saving grace. Ford sells this dynamic quite well and their relationship is often legitimately touching, especially as Buck keeps coming into Thornton’s life in the film’s first half. But still, whenever Ford pets Buck or interacts with him physically in any way, the illusion breaks again, and the disparity becomes glaring once more.
Writer Michael Green, who has previous worked on such darker stories as Blade Runner 2049, Logan and Alien: Covenant, takes the opposite approach with London’s story. Instead, Green has smoothed out some of the rougher edges, thankfully lessening some of the animal violence, and changing the finale’s villain. But some of Green’s other choices don’t make much sense in the long run. Ford provides a narration throughout the film that falls apart in the final scenes, and Stevens’ ridiculous villain keeps popping up for no other reason than this story needs him. These additions and changes aren’t terrible ideas, they simply needed more refinement than they get here.
Thankfully, The Call of the Wild never comes off as poorly presented as something like last year’s The Lion King remake (although one wonders if it would’ve been worse had this been made under Disney’s guidance, instead of by 20th Century Fox). The artificiality inherent in the techniques used to make Buck brings down the story significantly. In this story of man’s best friend, the only thing missing is an actual dog.