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Movie review: ‘Call’ of the CGI ‘Wild’

“The Call of the Wild” has been lambasted for its CGI creation of the lead character, Buck, a 140-pound St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix.

The wags’ snarky sendups went something like this: Harrison Ford acts opposite a CGI dog. Well, yes, and it’s remarkable.

“The Call of the Wild” provides a rollicking good yarn based on the Jack London novel set in 1897 during the Klondike Gold Rush in the Canadian Yukon, Canada. Sled dogs were nearly as good as gold. Buck is stolen from a California farm, abused and crated off north to become the leader of the pack.

Against a backdrop of magnificent scenery of snow-covered trails, trees and mountains, this is a man’s best friend story between John Thornton (Harrison Ford) and Buck (the CGI is based on the motion-capture of actor Terry Notary, who acted opposite Ford in scenes depicting the dog. Notary is best-known for his work in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” 2014; “Kong: Skull Island,” 2017, and “Avatar,” 2009).

I attend a movie screening with as few preconceived notions as possible. Being aware of “The Call of the Wild” badmouthing was unavoidable. I was prepared to not like the film. What a surprise. “The Call of the Wild” is a terrific film.

“The Call of the Wild” is in the tradition of faithful-dog movies (“Old Yeller,” 1957; “Lassie Come Home,” 1943).

“The Call of the Wild” is also in the tradition of Disney True-Life Adventure and Disneynature documentaries.

And the movie fits in with the photorealistic CGI remake of Disney’s “The Lion King” (2019).

Moreover, “The Call of the Wild” is a cautionary tale, not unlike “The Treasure of Sierra Madre,” the John Huston-directed 1948 classic movie starring Humphrey Bogart.

“The Call of the Wild” has a great pedigree.

Chris Sanders (three-time Oscar nominee, animated feature, “The Croods,” 2013; “How to Train Your Dragon,” 2010; “Lilo & Stitch,” 2002, with movie credits in character animation and animation visual development) directs from a screenplay by Michael Green (Oscar nominee: adapted screenplay, “Logan,” 2017; screenplay, “Blade Runner 2049,” 2017) based on Jack London’s novel.

The screenplay follows the novel (first published in four parts in The Saturday Evening Post in 1903) to a point. Some characters are changed or are composites. The storyline, about three-quarters of the way and toward the end of the film, veers from the book’s plot.

In some ways, the latest adaptation improves on previous film versions of the novel, which include a 1923 silent version, a 1935 version starring Clark Gable, a 1972 version starring Charlton Heston, and a 1997 TV movie starring Rutger Hauer and narrated by Richard Dreyfuss.

Harrison Ford narrates at the start and during portions of the latest version of “The Call of the Wild.” Ford is not on-screen as much as one might suppose given the actor’s prominent image on the movie’s poster.

When he’s on-screen, Ford is his usual cantankerous self, with that sly, self-deprecating smile, and a gruff voice to match his gruff visage, hidden under a Grizzly Adams beard grown to near Lettermanesque post “Late Show” proportions. No digital de-aging here for Ford a la Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci in “The Irishman” (2019).

That Ford can project emotion acting opposite a human portraying a dog (which is the way scenes with Terry Notary were filmed) is a credit to his acting prowess. The scenes with Thornton (Ford) and Buck the dog are believable and emotional.

Memorable in supporting roles are Omar Sy (Perrault), Cara Gee (Françoise) and Dan Stevens (Hal).

“The Call of the Wild” film has many thrilling scenes: sled-dog runs through the wilderness, a canoe riding the rapids, crossing ice-frozen rivers, a fight among sled dogs and fights among the humans. If you miss snow during the winter of 2019-20, this film’s for you.

The cinematography by Director of Photography Janusz Kaminski (two-time Oscar recipient: best cinematography, “Saving Private Ryan,” 1998; “Schindler’s List,” 1983) is often breathtaking.

The soundtrack by composer John Powell (Oscar nomination: original score, “How to Train Your Dragon,” 2010) brings an old-timey feel to the scenes.

“The Call of the Wild” is updated for contemporary audiences. It’s about the struggle between man connecting with nature and man trying to master nature, the bloodlust for power and gold, the mental and emotional bonds between man (or woman) and dog, and the draw of instinctual, animal, natural forces on a dog.

See “The Call of the Wild” without thinking that the dog is an actor under layers of CGI. After awhile, you won’t dwell on this aspect because Buck is rendered so amazingly as to appear real.

The film can be recommended for parents and children, outdoor adventure buffs and dog-lovers.

“The Call of the Wild,” MPAA rated PG (Parental Guidance Suggested Some material may not be suitable for children. Parents urged to give “parental guidance.” May contain some material parents might not like for their young children.) for some violence, peril, thematic elements and mild language; Genre: Adventure, Family, Drama; Run time: 1 hr., 40 min. Distributed by 20th Century Studios through Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Credit Readers Anonymous:

During “The Call of the Wild” end credits, “Great Unknown” is performed by X Ambassadors. Filming locations include Yukon, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. This adaptation is the first to portray Buck’s mixed-breed heritage. The CGI model for Buck was a digital scan of Buckley, a dog that director Chris Sanders’ wife, Jessica Steele-Sanders, adopted as a family pet from an animal shelter. It’s the first film with the 20th Century Studios logo, without the Fox name, following Disney’s purchase of the studio.

Box Office,

March 6-8: “Onward,” the latest Disney Pixar animated feature film, opened at No. 1, with $40 million, one week, showing up “The Invisible Man” from its one-week No. 1 perch, dropping one place to No. 2, with $15.1 million, $52.6 million, two weeks, as “The Way Back,” starring Ben Affleck, opened at No. 3, with $8.5 million, one week.

4. “Sonic the Hedgehog” dropped two places, $8 million, $140.8 million, four weeks. 5. “The Call of the Wild” dropped two places, $7 million, $57.4 million, three weeks. 6. “Emma” moved up seven places, $5 million, $6.8 million, three weeks. 7. “Bad Boys For Life” dropped two places, $3 million, $202 million, eight weeks. 8. “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” dropped two places, $2.1 million, $82.5 million, five weeks. 9. “Impractical Jokers: The Movie” dropped two places, $1.8 million, $9.6 million, three weeks. 10. “My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising” dropped six places, $1.5 million, $12.7 million, two weeks.

Weekend box office results are based on reporting as of March 8 by Internet Movie Database and Box Office Mojo websites.


March 13

“My Spy,”

PG-13: Peter Segal directs Dave Bautista, Chloe Coleman, Parisa Fitz-Henley and Kristen Schaal in the action-comedy. A CIA operative’s efforts to surveil a family are sidetracked by the family’s 9-year-old daughter.


PG-13: Dave Wilson directs Sam Heughan, Eiza González, Vin Diesel and Talulah Riley in the science-fiction action film. A soldier is given superpowers.

“The Hunt,”

R: Craig Zobel directs Betty Gilpin, Ethan Suplee, Emma Roberts and Justin Hartley in the horror-thriller. Twelve strangers are the targets in a deadly hunting game.

“I Still Believe,”

PG: Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin direct Britt Robertson, K.J. Apa, Melissa Roxburgh and Abigail Cowen in the musical-romance. The movie is based on the life of Christian music star Jeremy Camp.

“The Roads Not Taken,”

R: Sally Potter directs Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek and Branka Katic in the drama. A man re-evaluates his life as it might have been.

Three popcorn boxes out of five popcorn boxes.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO COURTESY WALT DISNEY STUDIOS MOTION PICTURESHarrison Ford (John Thornton), Buck (Computer Animated Imagery dog based on motion-capture of actor Terry Notary, “The Call of the Wild.”