Sunday, 15 March 2020

The Call of the Wild ★★★★☆

With a bit of skill and knowhow, CGI can be used effectively to enhance a movie, allowing the audience to see a spectacle that could never happen in reality. 

Think Planet of the Apes, which saw former Cirque du Soleil performer Terry Notary excelling as the dominant Rocket. Strangely, The Call of the Wild decided to task Notary with playing a dog (Buck) that makes up the focal point of the film and throws a 77-year-old Harrison Ford into the mix to form an unlikely duo.

An ape is one thing, but it’s hard to get past the sheer weirdness when you’re looking at a CGI pupper for the first time. We’re probably too used to seeing them in reality, so any mocap is going to suffer in comparison, with alien motions that don’t always hit the right mark. Regardless, once you get used to the uncanny valley, it’s easy to fall in love with a dog who carries the film for large spades and outmatches the talents of any real canine actor.

Set in 1890’s Alaska, it’s a remake of a film I’ve never watched, which has been remade several times before, and was originally a 120-year-old book I’ve never read. My ignorance on all things Call of the Wild shouldn’t be celebrated, but it’s a testament to the strength of the story, working well enough to translate over a century later. The plot features Buck’s journey across uncharted wastes, picking up a number of new owners and companions as he begins to understand what it takes to live a life away from human comforts. 

Above all, it’s fun to watch a film starring a hyper-intelligent pooch, while Ford somehow manages to fit the role of a grumpy old man convincingly. That’s not to downplay his part in everything from the quality of the narration to the earnestness of his performance when he’s sitting next to a man pretending to be a dog, and he shows weakness underneath the surly toughness found in many of his previous roles. Omar Sy is also memorable as the mailman Perrault, toughing out the wastes with a pack of dogs as he attempts to deliver letters on time for once.

The true adventure doesn’t start until an hour has passed, but it’s a worthwhile journey that hits all of the right emotional beats along the way. Buck obviously answers the call, and while you don’t have to be an animal lover to enjoy the tale, it does help if you have a passing interest in canine endeavours.

Despite a few dark moments, it’s a great example of a kids film that never panders or patronises the audience. That’s why it works well for adults too, as most of us would like a bit more freedom from time to time. It’s especially resonant in an era where the majority of our needs are taken care of, and it’s a great history lesson showing how difficult life used to be. 

James Millin-Ashmore

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