“Something is pulling Buck into the forest. He’s the same dog with me, but this journey seems to be leading him to his destination. Where is it leading me?” writes elderly loner, John Thornton (Harrison Ford), in his journal. He and Buck — St. Bernard/Scottish collie — are wandering in Gold-Rush Alaska. It’s late in the film narrative when Thornton reflects on the events he and Buck have shared in this fifth Hollywood adaptation of Jack London’s 1903 classic novel. (Other films: 1923, 1935, 1972 and 1997.)
Will Buck answer the call of the wild? What is Thornton’s destination? Does Buck — a high-tech, motion-capture, CGI creation — work for you? Or is his computer animation kind of creepy? For answers, see “The Call of the Wild.”
As the film’s central character, John Thornton, a nomadic prospector who has lost his family, Harrison Ford is convincing: low key, grizzled and gruff, who drinks too much but has a kind heart. He’s also the narrator, explaining Buck’s inner life as the big dog’s circumstances change. “Now doing the work of a sled dog,” Thornton says, “Buck belonged to a pack. He enjoyed it.” Buck is a photorealistic, CGI dog, like Disney’s animals in “The Jungle Book” (2016). Terry Notary, a former member of Cirque du Soleil, delivered the motion-capture performance that became Buck, remarkably convincing and expressive — if, at times, “visually disorienting,” as critic Frank Scheck says.
Others in the cast include Dan Stevens as villainous, greedy and gold-obsessed Hal, who stalks Thornton and Buck relentlessly into the deep Klondike wilderness. Hal’s sister, Mercedes, and her husband, Charles, are played by Karen Gillan and Colin Woodell. French-Canadian dog-sledders, Perrault (Omar Sy) and his wife, Francoise (Cara Gee), are high-spirited and good-natured, bummed only when their mail-delivery services are no longer needed. Bradley Whitford is Judge Miller, Buck’s first owner, from whose large and wealthy California household, free-spirit Buck is stolen and shipped to Alaska.
Directed by Chris Sanders, from Michael Green’s screenplay (based on Jack London’s novel), “The Call of the Wild” is entertaining, family-friendly adventure/drama. Some audience members applauded as the film ended at the Sunday afternoon showing I attended. It’s a satisfying film, if you’re comfortable knowing that Buck — and all the other dogs and wolves — are special-effects creations. Among the film’s pleasures are cinematographer Janusz Kaninski’s stunning Alaska and Canadian landscapes.
Rated PG for some violence, peril, thematic elements, and mild language, “The Call of the Wild” runs 100 minutes.
Heroic dog, man alone —
Both are searching for a home;
Thornton has lost wife and child,
Will Buck hear “Call of the Wild”?