Maybe it’s a sign of times that Harrison Ford is sharing a screen with a digital dog. Why use a real canine when a computer can make certain that a pixelated pup performs according to SAG rules and not his actual nature? You can hear the voices of future filmmakers, echoing throughout the Hollywood Hills: “Get more feeling into the mutt’s eyes.” “Make him run faster than a real dog can!” That’s the case in The Call of the Wild, the umpteenth screen version of Jack London’s classic 1903 adventure novel about a St. Bernard/Scotch Collie named Buck who finds his true heart in helping grizzled, hard-drinking prospector John Thornton (Ford) search for gold in the Yukon. Luckily, Ford is at his droll, grumpy-old-man best, so he can do his own acting without having his emotions computer generated. At least for now.
The Call of the Wild, rated a cozy PG, misses the edgy darkness of London’s tale and is too cute by half. But it fulfills its promise as harmless entertainment — The Call of the Mild is more apt title. From the comic early scenes, in which the untrained Buck runs amok at the plush California ranch owned by a sweetly patient Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford), the film proceeds to the only semi-scary dog-napping that lands Buck in Alaska as a sled dog who resists the whip of servitude. Obedience needs to be beaten into Buck (ouch!) until he learns the game from a kindly French-Canadian couple, played by Omar Sy and Cara Gee, who run a dog-driven, mail-delivery service. But the use of the telegraph soon makes sled-teams obsolete, putting Buck out of business until he is sold to Mercedes (Karen Gillan) and her villainous brother Hal (Dan Stevens), a cruel idiot who tries to force Buck’s team to cross a frozen river that’s quickly melting.
You get the drill. Working from a merely serviceable script by Martin Green, animation director Chris Sanders makes his live-action debut in a film that too often feels like a cartoon in the manner of his previous films Lilo & Stitch, How to Train Your Dragon and The Croods. It’s understandable that you wouldn’t want to put an actual dog in scenes that require a dangerous underwater rescue and an escape from a life-crushing avalanche. But something is missing here. Lassie, Rin Tin-Tin and Beethoven would have all been pink-slipped if they tried to star in movies today. Imagine a digital French Mastiff slobbering all over Tom Hanks in Turner& Hooch. It just wouldn’t be the same.
And it isn’t. The great cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List), shooting on sets in Los Angeles, works hard to give the film an epic, lost-in-the 1890’s Klondike scope. He succeeds more often than the computers do at bringing all the dogs to life, as well as a Timberland wolf who becomes Buck’s romantic interest. The illusion works best when it comes down to the interaction of one man and one dog. Ford’s natural warmth, humor and star charisma help audiences suspend disbelief, as does the talent of Terry Notary, the motion-capture artist and former Cirque du Soleil performer, who stood in for Buck on set. Notary was brilliant as the ape man who went batshit at a fancy museum party in Ruben Ostlund’s The Square in 2017. And he gives everything he’s got here as he and Ford interact as costars, wrestling, battling and bonding (Thornton even rubs Buck’s belly). It’s a neat party trick.
But the feeling persists that a real dog could have closed the emotional gap that technology puts between illusion and reality (last year’s photorealistic take on The Lion King had the same distancing problem). Digital slight-of-hand makes a poor substitute for all things bright and beautiful. Faking it is no answer to Jack London’s call of the wild — or an audience’s call for astonishment.