The Call of the Wild (2020)
Updated: Nov 14
Well, I cried. Incredibly embarrassing, but to be expected in a movie about a dog. However, I'm proud to say that I shed more tears over John's (Harrison Ford) storyline, than Buck's.
The Call of the Wild is based on the book of the same name by Jack London. It follows a dog named Buck on his many adventures. The film starts with Buck being a general pest. However, he is the dog of a judge, and therefore is untouchable by the many people that he is irksome to. He gallivants about, doing whatever pleases him, until he takes things a step too far and his master relegates him to the dog house (a.k.a. the front porch). It is night, and Buck hears the call of a stranger from the dark. The stranger is offering Buck a treat, if Buck gets inside his cart. This is the age old tale of lollies and a van...and Buck falls for it hook, line and sinker. He is dognapped and taken to Alaska, where sled dogs are used in man's pursuit of gold! This is essentially a coming of age-type story...but for dogs. Buck goes from being a spoiled young dog who gets away with murder and wants for nothing, to being a mature adult dog and generous leader. I shan't go through all of the plot points, as I don't want to spoil Buck's many adventures for you.
This is a very pretty film. Obviously, much of it is filmed outside and nature's beauty is exploited to great effect for the purpose of production design. The northern lights (or perhaps a computer generated version) are a centrepiece for a number of the shots taken at nighttime. This film uses a variety of shot sizes to great effect: long shots display the beauty of nature, whilst close ups are used to convey emotion. There are also a number of moments where the camera swiftly tracks with our protagonist as he chases a rabbit or engages in some other dog behaviour. So essentially, everything in the background of the shots or around the dog/s is incredibly captivating. Buck on the other hand, is incredibly distracting. At times he looks almost believable and at other times, the CGI is definitely disconcerting. They have given this dog facial expressions, I assume for the purpose of evoking empathy and emotion on the part of the audience. However, this doesn't quite work, as I was too busy recognising that Buck isn't real, rather than realising that Buck is sad/happy/angry/annoyed.
There is a positive to the varying scale of CGI-ness. I assume no real dogs were harmed in the making of this film. This is very much in line with the film's central themes. Obviously, this movie addresses the treatment of animals. Indeed, this is a recurring theme. Buck encounters plenty of humans who demonstrate kindness, but he also encounters those that have complete disregard for dogs. Throughout the film, whips and batons are used on dogs to ensure compliance. At one point, even a pistol is pointed at Buck. These behaviours are clearly (and rightfully) demonised throughout the plot. John takes a stand against this mistreatment of animals on more than one occasion. Additionally, upon arriving at an abandoned cabin, a short scene is dedicated to detailing the things that John throws in the trash, a bear trap being one of them. The messages around animal cruelty are taken a step further though, when John starts questioning where Buck truly belongs. The audience receives lines like, "is there any house big enough to hold him?" Furthermore, Buck seems to have an identity crisis, where he is spending his days in the wild and nights with John. This of course causes the audience, at times, to question the validity and ethics of keeping house pets.
This film also addresses other topical issues. It's a cliché, but good old "money can't buy you happiness" makes an appearance or two. At one point, Buck is happily working for Perrault (Omar Sy), a man who isn't rich, but who cares for the dogs well. Later in the film, Buck's new owner starves them, whips them and knowingly endangers them, all for the sake of obtaining gold. He is already wealthy, yet actively yearns for more. One of his travelling companions, presumably his wife (Karen Gillan), sits atop a crate of what appears to be moet, on the sled. The dogs struggle to pull the heavy load up steep hills, and Gillan's character Mercedes says, "perhaps we should feed them". These people presumably aren't providing the dogs with regular food and water, but sit upon a crate of alcohol that is definitely representative of a luxury they want, rather than something they need - and the dogs suffer because of it. John's character completely contrasts with this lot, even outwardly admitting that riches won't give him what he ultimately wants in life.
If all of those themes weren't enough for you, we have more themes! Firstly, bullying is bad! Secondly, it's important to be on time. Thirdly, and most importantly, Buck seems to understand what alcoholism is, and is opposed to it. Look, not a bad stance to take, but it certainly makes him a more sentient dog than most.
Unlike the majority of other films revolving around an animal, in this film I connected the most with the people surrounding Buck. Harrison Ford's portrayal of John is quite stirring. Whilst Omar Sy and Cara Gee also reeled me in and caused me to become more invested in this story. As was mentioned earlier, Buck is much harder to connect with, because he clearly isn't real. It is the performers around the animals that really save this film for me. Without them, I'm not sure it would be a pass.
Finally, before wrapping this up, I'd like to address two quotes from perhaps my favourite scene. John sits upon the roof of his house, it's night and Buck has just arrived home from a day in the wild. John is drinking. "You've been staying out later and later," he says to Buck. "The world is a dangerous place," he goes on to lecture. The lines sound like they are being delivered by a father to his teenaged son. I half expected Buck to reply with, "I'll do what I wanna do! Gosh!" Instead, Buck stares judgementally at the alcohol in John's hands and the audience knows that he doesn't approve.
This film is heartwarming. I enjoyed it, although at times I wondered how long I'd actually been in the cinema. If you love CGI-dogs and if you love Harrison Ford then this film is definitely a 5/5. If you like actual dogs and you also like Harrison Ford, then this film is a solid pass and Harrison Ford is a 5/5. I won't be watching it again, but it was a nice way to start my Saturday morning.