Review: 'The Call of the Wild' is tame, but not completely watered down

Harrison Ford stars as John Thornton in the new adaptation of Jack London's The Call of the Wild (Photo: 20th Century)

The Call of the Wild
3 out of 5 Stars
Chris Sanders
Writer: Michael Green, Jack London (novel)
Starring: Harrison Ford, Cara Gee, Omar Sy, Dan Stevens
Genre: Adventure, Drama
Rated: PG for some violence, peril, thematic elements and mild language

SALT LAKE CITY (KUTV) – Synopsis: A mischievous dog is stolen from his owners and sold to be a sled dog in the wildlands of the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896.

Review: I know I read Jack London’s novel “The Call of the Wild” at some point in my early education, but frontier stories didn’t really stick with me in the same way that Greek tragedies did. That’s not exactly the truth but isn’t far from it. Despite living in the wilds of the west, I wasn’t much of an outdoorsman. I did entertain the idea of living in a hollow tree; that’s more “My Side of the Mountain” and “Winnie-the-Pooh.”

So, I didn’t go into “The Call of the Wild” with any sense of nostalgia or expectation.

The film begins with a lighthearted look at the life of Buck, a dog raised in the leisurely atmosphere of Santa Clara Valley, California, before being stolen and sold as a sled dog.

Initially Buck works for a mail carrier and his wife. In time he is taken in by John Thornton (Harrison Ford), a man who has run away from his life to drink away his days in relative isolation.

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In times of trouble or danger, Buck finds himself chasing his spirit animal, a large black wolf who appears like a lighthouse to give the dog and his companions safe passage from here to there and onward. There are difficult times, but director Chris Sanders skips pass the weightiest of themes by pushing them into the margins and by transforming the film’s principal villain, Hal (Dan Stevens), into an exaggerated and cartoonish character.

I’m not entirely comfortable with the film’s decision to use a motion capture of actor Terry Notary to create a computer-generated dog, rather than the real thing. It works at times, but it is also distracting as Buck is often too personified (an odd choice considering the film is about an animal returning to its natural state).

“The Call of the Wild” is a film made for younger audiences. Adults won’t find it to be too annoying, but the water-downed drama undercuts most of the emotional impact. Still, the the themes of loss and recovery as still there. There’s something to be learned from the experience. For that reason, I greatly prefer it to “Sonic the Hedgehog,” even if “The Call of the Wild” is only a slightly better film when it comes to my star rating.