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The Call of the Wild is a simple, enjoyable cinematic ode to man’s best friend

The decision by director Chris Sanders to use motion capture rather than real dogs in the new adaptation of Jack London’s famous novel is controversial but works remarkably well.

Harrison Ford and a dog named Buck appear in the movie "The Call of the Wild." (CNS photo/Fox)

MPAA Rating: PG
USCCB Rating: A -II
Reel Rating: 3 out of 5 reels

“The Lord said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” Out of the ground, the Lord formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. Whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all the cattle and to the birds of the sky and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him.” — Genesis 2:18-20

The second chapter of Genesis testifies to the unique relationship between man and beast. The animals were God’s first attempt to ease Adam’s loneliness, and this kinship is retained in the domesticated fauna that are used for labor, companionship, and enjoyment today. No animal better demonstrates this than the dog, which through hard work and loyalty has earned the title “man’s best friend.”

The Call of the Wild, the latest adaptation of Jack London classic 1903 novel, does an excellent job balancing the two aspects of this relationship: both kinship and difference, humanlike companionship and animal nature. Directed by Chris Sanders (Lilo & Stitch, How to Train Your Dragon), the film was released by 20th Century Studios and stars Harrison Ford.

Buck begins his life as a spoiled house dog in 1890s Northern California. His life involves chasing rabbits, stealing food, and breaking various household items. His large physique and appetite make him a menace, but his playful demeanor makes him endlessly forgivable. One fateful night, he is dognapped and sold to a company that provides sled dogs to Klondike fortune seekers. Fortunately, he is acquired by French-Canadian mail carrier Perrault (Omar Sy) who teaches him endurance, teamwork, and self-sacrifice as a member of his seven-dog delivery troop in Alaska. Buck experiences both triumphs and tragedies as he braves the North, until he eventually finds his way into the hands of his final master John Thornton (Ford), a washed-up prospector trying to drink his troubles away. Together, they journey into the heart of the Arctic wilderness where they both find their true calling.

Dogs have a unique niche in God’s great creation. They are clearly not human, as they are without rational souls, yet are “human-like” in their capacity for learning, empathy, and dedication. No other animal has worked closer with humans. Buck is the clear protagonist of The Call of Wild, and his arc is like that of his human counterparts. In the first phase of his development, Buck learns that a dog’s true relationship to humans is a beast of burden, not in the sense of oppression (which is firmly and rightfully rejected), but in the sense of duty. He is far happier working hard to deliver the mail than he ever was stealing drumsticks off tables.

The second phase of his development demonstrates his nature as an animal apart from humans. While prospecting with John, Buck meets a wolf pack and begins to spend more time with them. After John dies at the hands of a fellow gold seeker, Buck chooses to remain with his ancestors, but returns once a year to honor his fallen comrade. He is still “wild,” not part of the human and spiritual realms, but nonetheless acknowledging their primacy.

Sanders’ decision to use motion capture rather than real dogs is controversial but works remarkably well. The artificial tweaking of the eyes, mouth, and ears make it easier to understand the inner thoughts of Buck as he adjusts to new people and situations. These gestures, of course, do not exist in real animals but help the audience identify with the dog protagonist. The use of these visual effects, however, is not overused. The audience still gets to enjoy the vast wilderness, beautifully portrayed by the great cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, and stellar human performances.

It is easy to become jaded to the plight of animals, who do not have rights, when they are unjustly treated. Yet, as Matthew Scully observes in his fantastic 2003 book Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, it is “because they do not have rights that we should feel compassion for them.” They experience pain, loss, betrayal, fear, and many of the consequences of the Fall because of our actions.

Films that anthropomorphize animals, such as The Call of the Wild, are healthy ways to honor these creatures while inspiring positive virtues in ourselves. The film is not terribly complex and won’t win any awards, but it’s the perfect movie to watch on a rainy Saturday afternoon with your kid and your pet. Just don’t let your dog eat off your table—at least not while your wife is looking.


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About Nick Olszyk 139 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.

12 Comments

  1. The movie was silly up to and then beyond the point of absurdity and this review is on the same level. A friend of mine put it best – they ‘Disneyfied’ the book. They took ALL the savagery out of the book in the movie, and I must conclude that it was to get a PG rating – the theater was full of kids when I saw it. I’m just 1 year younger than Harrison Ford and I’ve read the book 3 times – the first time 60 years ago.

    The ‘fight’ between Buck and Spitz was ridiculous, the mysterious black dog that appeared a convenient times was ridiculous, and in the scene where Buck, after dispatching Spitz is promoted to lead dog and walks up to the front of the pack if you look you’ll notice Buck missing something.

    I’m sure Harrison Ford got a nice chunk of change for this but I think he should be embarrassed.

    On the other hand – the popcorn was ok.

  2. Addendum – I’ve had dogs all my life – labs for the last 40 years, my current dog is 11 years old and I got him from a shelter and he’s half lab half pit bull, very talkative and very funny.

    I didn’t tell him about the movie.

  3. One more remark and then I PROMISE no more.

    Did Mr. Olszyk read the book? He does not mention having read it so I assume that he didn’t, and to me that means that he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about, which is ok.

  4. It seems Mr. McManus failed to eat his kibbles and bits this morning. Too bad, because if he had, he might have been able to look beyond his status as a dog-owning professor of Jack London Studies to see that this movie actually was quite good, particularly given what’s on offer from Disney these days.

    I took my two children to see this movie Friday night and enjoyed my experience very much. (And yes, Mr. McManus, I’ve read the Call of the Wild several times. I’ve even owned several dogs!) The movie is light years better than any of the absurd culture-destroying propaganda cranked out by Disney, Inc. in recent decades. It was nice to see something made for kids that was reasonably faithful to a classic work. Mr. McManus’s unhinged reaction to the movie and this review only proves that you can’t please everybody. But hey, at least he enjoyed the popcorn.

    • Not only did I have my kibbles and bits this a.m., I also peed in the snow.

      It is not a question of whether the movie is better than any of the other stuff put out by Disney or anyone else, the ONLY question, to me, is this: did the movie come anywhere near doing justice to the book? To me the answer is a resounding NO.

      BTW – see a GREAT movie entitled ‘A Hidden Life’.

    • I’ve got a better idea – IGNORE Disney, at least the fluff they’re peddling now.

      On the other hand – If you can find two cartoon characters funnier than the spinster aunts in ‘The Aristocats’ – please let me know immediately by Pony Express.

  5. He didn’t seem real. A fake Disney cartoon creature. Digital creatures are amazing when well done this one seemed made for kids. “In the 1935 movie The Call of the Wild, the canine protagonist Buck was cast as a burly St Bernard alongside a mustachioed Clark Gable. In 2020, Buck is played by a 51 year old former Cirque du Soleil performer named Terry who was digitally transformed into a St Bernard Scotch shepherd mix. He walks like a dog, he barks like a dog, but as many viewers will realize within seconds he isn’t a real dog” (NYT). At any rate I won’t see the Disney kids version of the book [the trailer was enough] that I enjoyed as a kid dreaming of real adventure. The 1935 movie is great seen occasionally on Turner Classics. Californian Jack London was a free spirit ever seeking sailed on a seal hunting schooner across the Pacific worked in a jute mill shoveled coal travelling with rail riding transients [hobos] drinking and fighting along with sailors a “prince” rather than a meager factory wage owner. Until he began writing. London wrote of his Ranch, “All I wanted was a quiet place in the country to write and loaf in, and get out of nature that something which we all need, only the most of us don’t know it (London in Smithsonian Mag).” Unfortunately he died at 40 of gastric disorders. As a priest someone who loves nature sought adventure found Christ by chance or grace the gift now realized the reason I pray for a wide spectrum of conversions.

  6. As an avid movie watcher, I enjoyed the mix of reality vs. fantasy, and Buck’s growth of awareness, interactions and reactions. I, also, just watched the movie Full Count and cant wait to read the review and comments. Peace

  7. Have not yet seen the movie, but I will. I love dogs, and still mourn my Golden Retriever who succumbed to cancer a few years ago . What a good soul. As to the purists who object to any variation from original books: It is generally not practical or commercially viable to try to remain absolutely faithful to all aspects of a book. Long and boring would be the result. In general this kind of movie would be oriented towards a child audience, and therefore adjustments must be made. Adults by and large prefer shoot’em ups/ blow them ups, or horror flicks. If the broad points of the book are made, and the movie is visually pleasing, and better still if it touches the heart, that’s as good as a movie like that will get.

  8. I agreed with my dad that using motion-capture, while useful for storytelling, was akin to using animation in “Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” rather than using actual air craft which makes the movie all the more stunning. In other words, I was taken out of the story by the “un-dogness” of all the dog characters (because they were clearly all animated) In regards to toning down the book, I did realize I cried a lot less during the movie than the book, but I am not offended that the studio toned it down in order to increase profits by widening the audience. I personally am growing weary of all of the VFX as opposed to practical effects. The mystery and real-ness of films are gone, and I found all the aerial animated shots disappointing and even aggravating especially because Alaska has so many beautiful landscapes to offer. For some reason it is easier and cheaper to create landscapes on a computer than to pay a guy in Alaska some money to just get some aerial shots on his drone. And of course animating the dogs is easier and cheaper than hiring dog trainers to wrangle all those dogs. I love the story and Harrison Ford of course was excellent but I left feeling disappointed.

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