The Call of the Wild trades frontier realism for goofy CGI animal antics

John Thornton (Harrison Ford), a kindly prospector who becomes Buck’s human sidekick for a time. (20th Century Studios)

Perhaps predictably, considering that similar rumors were on the go during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, there’s fake news out there of late positing that the virulent Coronavirus strain now spreading across the globe was secretly cultivated in US government laboratories and deliberately released in China, with a view to devastating its economy. Apparently originating with a QAnon blogger, this rumor blew up in anti-vaxxer social media circles, and somehow led to speculation that Bill Gates and/or Hillary Clinton were behind the fiendish plan. Wacko conspiracy theories are, sadly, always an easy sell to a gullible American public.

What’s even weirder, though, is the fact that Jack London wrote a short story in 1910, “The Unparalleled Invasion,” that anticipated this scenario, with genocide through germ warfare presented as the only effective counterweight to Chinese expansionism. (The author’s lifelong commitment to socialism coexisted uneasily with racist tendencies and fears of Asian immigration to the US, the latter common among Californians of his era.) This dystopian story, set in the 1980s, is one of several cited by those who argue that London deserves a place among the pioneers of science fiction.

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But that’s not the body of work for which most know of Jack London. We remember him for his adventure tales set in Alaska and the Yukon Territories during the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s. They’re stories that still hold up because they’re grounded in reality, the author having spent about a year working the goldfields around Dawson City: long enough to develop scurvy and lose four front teeth. He quickly learned to respect the dangers of the northern frontier, including the fact that hypothermia – not wolf packs nor grizzly bears nor greedy drunken prospectors – was the most relentless killer lurking there. “To Build a Fire,” London’s grim, straightforward account of an arrogant greenhorn’s inexorable death in the Arctic wilderness after falling through ice and getting the lower half of his body and clothing soaked, is justly praised as one of the finest examples of the short-story form in the English language.

Mostly we remember, with fondness, The Call of the Wild and White Fang: two novellas with canine protagonists that are mainstays of the middle-school literature curriculum, despite being markedly harsh in tone and gory in details. These are not pretty, sentimental animal stories. But they tend to stay with us. And, as with other beloved literary works discovered in our youths, we worry when we hear that a new film or television adaptation is coming out. Sometimes the version on the screen inside our heads is best left untampered-with.

Chris Sanders’ newly released The Call of the Wild is a perfect example of a movie based on a childhood classic that should never have been made. Several big-screen versions already existed, including a 1923 silent film, a 1935 version starring Clark Gable and Loretta Young, another from 1972 with Charlton Heston, one with Rutger Hauer in 1997, an anime interpretation and another animated film starring Snoopy. Until now, the live-action ones at least featured real live dogs as Buck and his sled-teammates. The 2020 edition is neither fish nor fowl nor canine, with the dog and wolf characters rendered in CGI. Sadly, though the technology has advanced greatly in recent years, mammals still suffer from the Uncanny Valley effect – especially when they’re the focus of nearly every scene.

Harrison Ford does as professional a job as a viewer could ask in the (greatly expanded from the book) role of John Thornton, a kindly prospector who becomes Buck’s human sidekick for a time. It must have taken some deliberate focus to deliver dialogue with sincerity when talking to a dog that wasn’t there. Even more unsettling is the realization that he was cuddling in these scenes with a human stuntman studded with motion-capture antennae, Terry Notary.

The vaguely fake-looking dogs aren’t the worst part of The Call of the Wild 2020. Presumably in an appeal to the family-friendly movie market, this version pretty much sands off all the rough edges of the story. The violence of frontier life is markedly toned down, and even Buck’s epic battle with another dog, Spitz, for alpha status on the sled team is bloodless and does not end in the loser’s demise. The background photography (shot in Canada) is often gorgeous, but verisimilitude in life-or-death situations is treated as expendable. I think the author of “To Build a Fire” would have been appalled to see Thornton come out of a stretch of heavy whitewater with his sweater barely damp and not an inch of water in the bottom of his canoe, or the mail-sled captain Perrault (Omar Sy) being more worried about a dog’s whereabouts than the fact that his musher Françoise (Cara Gee) might die within minutes after a plunge into a frozen lake if he doesn’t get her into dry clothing stat.

Worst of all, these grittier details are often sacrificed in favor of slapstick scenes – the sort that feel hokey, cheap and condescending even to smarter youngsters. There’s not much merriment to be derived from The Call of the Wild, even when that’s the filmmaker’s apparent aim. And the power of the tale’s harsh realism is entirely dissipated. Unless you’ve got a very young crew in need of an afternoon’s excruciatingly wholesome entertainment, I’d give this one a hard pass. It does no justice at all to a story we loved in our youth.

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