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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