Dogs, in their rambunctious domesticated way, can lead us overly civilized humans a step or two closer to the natural world. So it’s only fitting that the best dog movies have saluted that unruly canine spirit without a lot of artificial flavoring. Hollywood’s classic dog tales, like “Old Yeller” (1957) or “Lassie Come Home” (1943), are lyrical marvels of plainspoken storytelling — primal fables of love, loss, heart, and home — and so, in its way, was the last great dog movie, “Marley & Me” (2008), which treated the title pooch of John Grogan’s memoir as a scruffy agent of canine chaos who was also, in his way, a figure of faith. That said, I’ve never had much patience for synthetic anthropomorphic dog comedies like “Beethoven” or “Benji” or “Turner & Hooch.” If I want to see a dog turned into a cartoon, I’d rather watch a cartoon.
“The Call of the Wild,” an adaptation of the Jack London classic that’s true to the spirit, if not always the letter, of the 1903 novel (which I admit, as a kid, I could never get through), is a dog movie that’s more concocted than it has any right to be. It was produced by 20th Century Studios, back when the company had a “Fox” in its name, but in this case there’s something almost poetically appropriate about the fact that the film is now emerging from the gates of the Disney empire. That’s because “The Call of the Wild,” directed by Chris Sanders (the co-director, with Dean DeBlois, of “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Lilo & Stitch”), is a semi-live-action film that nevertheless bounces along with the glibly overdone visual logic of an old Disney dog comedy from the 1960s.
The film’s style, to put it bluntly, is more than a bit fake.
Early on, when we meet Buck, a St. Bernard/Scotch Collie mix with a keen intelligence and adorable eyes, he’s ruling the roost of his big pastoral home in Santa Clara, California, and the way the film establishes what an innocently fearsome beast he is to have the cupboards of the kitchen shake, rattle, and roll as he bounds around the house. He’s a very big dog, but all I could think was: Come on, he’s not frigging Godzilla! Why the exaggerated effect?
Because that’s the film’s way of coddling the audience, treating us as if we needed a collective pat on the head. Buck doesn’t spend a lot time at the house before being stolen by an evil canine kidnapper, who trains him with a club and sells him into service as a sled dog. It’s the 1890s, and Buck lands in the bustling town of Skagway, Alaska, gateway to the Yukon and the dreams of a thousand prospectors. As soon as he hooks up with Perrault (Omar Sy) and François (Cara Gee), who run a mail-delivery route for the U.S. government, he learns how to be part of a dog team — but here, too, his exuberance is communicated with sled-dog sequences that have the feel of stylized CG action rides, because that’s essentially what they are.
The filmmakers employ a blend of live action and digital enhancement, and I guess you could say it’s an achievement that we can’t totally tell where the one leaves off and the other begins. But what we do know is that everything we’re seeing is a shade faster, more bumptious, more animated than real life. Does that mean it’s more exciting? I’d say that makes it less exciting.
In episodes like the one where Buck takes on and defeats the leader of the pack, a snarling Siberian husky named Spitz, or rescues François after she falls under the ice, you know you aren’t seeing the events play out with the kind of transcendent naturalism that was so enthralling, 37 years ago, in the wild-hound-in-the-Arctic landmark “Never Cry Wolf.” It may come as a shock to learn that “The Call of the Wild” was shot by Janusz Kaminski, who in his work with Steven Spielberg (“Saving Private Ryan,” “Schindler’s List,” “Munich,” “The War of the Worlds”) became a maestro of gray-streaked deep-focus existential realism, qualities that would have worked marvelously in a dog drama set in the wilderness. There are visually enthralling moments in “The Call of the Wild,” including an impressive avalanche, but most of the film has an impersonal look of sun-dappled squareness. It’s a picture-postcard saga with a real-dog-who’s-also-a-CG-dog, and that may lead some to dismiss the movie as a dog.
And yet…much as I wish the filmmakers had put more trust in the organic heartbeat of their material, “The Call of the Wild” gets better as it goes along. In Skagway, Buck forms a momentary connection with John Thornton (Harrison Ford), a furry figure who’s been cut loose from his family by tragedy. Buck finds Thornton’s harmonica in the snow and brings it to him (they don’t see each other again for a while), but we can already tell that this is going to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. And the way Harrison Ford plays it, it really is. Ford acts with pure soul here (he also narrates the film with his lovely storybook growl); it’s a minimalist performance, mostly very reactive, but the saintly gruffness of Ford’s thick-gray-bearded, sad-eyed presence helps to nudge Buck to life as a character. “The Call of the Wild” turns into a movie about a difficult but devoted dog and the master who’s a bit of a lonely old mutt himself. For all the wholesome cheesiness of much of the film, you’d have to have a pretty hard heart not to be touched by it.
In John Thornton, Buck, at last, has found a master who’s worthy of him. That’s why he keeps running away with bottles of whiskey — he can sense how the booze dampens Thornton’s spirit. The two move into an abandoned prospector’s cabin and even hit pay dirt, but the film gets very Zen about this. It’s all about Thornton rediscovering how to live in the moment — which, of course, is what dogs, at least in human society, are the masters of. There’s a villain who must be defeated (totally flat, boilerplate stuff), but as Buck spends more time in the wilderness and begins to fuse with it, he becomes the free creature he was meant to be. He cuts himself loose from the artificial, concocted world. You only wish that the whole movie had done the same thing.