By John H. Foote
Jack London wrote the great adventure novel “The Call of the Wild” in 1903 to great acclaim and it has been filmed many times since, both for the big screen and television. The best-known version is still the 1935 film starring Clark Gable as Jack Thornton, though that might change with this new picture.
When I heard Harrison Ford would be assuming the role of Thornton I was excited because it offered the actor a chance to flex his muscles as an actor. Like John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, Ford has always been under appreciated as an actor, always considered more of a movie star which is both unfair and not true. Through his entire career he has been nominated for a single Academy Award for Best Actor, for his fine performance in the thriller Witness (1985) about a cop in danger hiding in the Amish community near Philadelphia. He was superb in the film, and followed it with another performance guided by director Peter Weir as the mad inventor in The Mosquito Coast (1986) who takes his family off the grid into the jungle paradise where he finds his own heart of darkness in trying to be God. I was stunned by this performance, but even more shocked critics and audiences did not catch on and that the Academy failed to nominate him for another Oscar. This is the finest work of his career, a seething, stunning performance about a man so disgusted with commercialism he drops out of America.
Of course, he is best known as Indiana Jones in the four-film franchise for George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, another is on the way, and as Han Solo in the Star Wars films, but Ford has always been a fine actor. The great Burt Lancaster had high praise for him after seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) for the first time, realizing what it took to portray that character. Can you imagine anyone else in the role? If not, then that is a great performance. Through his career he has appeared in many fine films delivering terrific work, films such as American Graffiti (1973), Heroes (1977), Apocalypse Now (1979), Blade Runner (1982) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Working Girl (1988), and 42 (2013).
Here as Jack Thornton he is excellent, his gruff, gravelly voice perfect for the character, an adventurer wandering the North in search of “the wild”, something pure, that which inspired the young, doomed hero in Sean Penn’s magnificent Into the Wild (2007). There has always been something primal, something near magical in the wild, in that not yet discovered, that calls to man to discover, just as Thornton attempts here. He wants to find something as pure as the winter snow, he wants to know that such things exist before he dies.
But first there is Buck.
A magnificent St. Bernard crossed with Border Collie he is a massive dog in California stolen from his family and taken to the far North where, after a series of misadventures, he comes to Thornton. More than anything else the film is about Buck and his call to the wild, becoming the animal he was meant to be. When he finds Thornton they connect, and he becomes very much the man’s dog and in Bucks eyes I suppose Thornton becomes his human.
There are some stunning set pieces that set Buck up as the hero he was meant to be, the best of them saving a young girl from drowning when the ice beneath her feet breaks and she falls into the freezing water. Another has the dog face to face with a very angry grizzly bear wanting to inflict maximum damage. Does Buck run? Yes, directly at the bear. Like Old Yeller (1957) before him, Buck is very much the hero of the film, and what a hero he is. Fearless, loyal, willing to lay down his life for his humans, he is quite a magnificent creation.
Now that said, and with the greatest of respect, he is not a real dog folks.
At all. Oh no, Buck is a computer-generated image of a motion capture performance created for the film. Like the animals created for The Lion King (2018), the remake, he is a creation within a computer and, frankly, looks it. When, or rather if you can get over that, you will admire the work that went into creating the big animal. Terry Notary, an actor, stood in for the dog during filming and then his image was scanned with an adopted dog and created within the computer. Every movement, every eye glance, every perfect hair was created from scratch and I would say bravo to the creators. There are times though he looks like a computer-generated image, fleeting moments to be sure, but they exist and cannot be denied. But not only was Buck created within a computer, the other dogs, the bears, the wild, most of the outdoors of the Yukon is all the work of computer animators. The film was not shot on location, which would have added great character to the shots and characters, instead shot in California and green screened to look like the Yukon.
Has shooting on location suddenly become so expensive that filmmakers are so ready to take short cuts? The Revenant (2015), the Oscar winning film a few years ago, was shot on location and the choice was perfect bringing a startling realism to the film that otherwise it would not have had. Leonardo Di Caprio felt the realism of the location added greatly to his Academy Award winning performance! Why create in a computer, which is expensive, what you can shot by travelling and shooting? If money is the issue send a small crew rather than whole group with all their trucks and trailers intruding on the great outdoors.
For The Call of the Wild, they did not. They chose to fake it and sometimes, in some shots I felt as though I was looking at a video game, a very good one, but still just a bit too pristine, shiny almost, missing the rough look of the outdoors of the North.
Chris Sanders directs the film, quite well actually, drawing on his background in animation no doubt to make the picture. His biggest film to date, before this one remains the Oscar nominated How to Train Your Dragon (2010) which he co-directed and co-wrote. He makes a rather seamless transition to live action, merged with animation with this film.
Harrison Ford does not disappoint as Thornton, a tough, well-worn man of the outdoors who finds in Buck a true friend. It is a fine performance, and all the more challenging when you realize he was giving it to a guy in a dog costume, and against massive green screens to be animated into the lush and rocky Northern Yukon later in production. I suspect though Ford is used to working in effects laden films, given his history with Lucas and Spielberg, though the execution of the effects has evolved so much through his career.
The film should do very well at the box office and, given the confidence the studiohas in the film, they were going to release in December, prime release dates until Disney bought 20th Century Fox and did not want competition for their Star Wars film, pushing it here. And it feels like a Disney picture does it not? And like previous animated animals and creations Simba, the Genie, Dumbo, Shrek, Puss ‘n Boots, and many others, Disney or not, you will fall in love with Buck. I suspect the toy stores will be filled with plush, fuzzy St. Bernard dogs this summer and fall.
Thoroughly entertaining. I just struggle with the creation of it all. For the original in 1935 they used a real dog and trained him. Too tough these days? Funny, Hollywood will deal with temperamental actors and divas, but not an animal that could be trained. Kind of sad.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.