[Screen It]


(2020) (Harrison Ford, Dan Stevens) (PG)

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Drama: Various people impact the life of a sled dog during the Yukon gold rush of the late 19th century.

It's the era of the Yukon gold rush of the late 19th century and with powerful dogs that can pull sleds being at a premium, a large canine named Buck ends up stolen from his California home and shipped north. He ultimately ends up as part of the sled team owned by Perrault (OMAR SY) and Françoise (CARA GEE) who deliver mail to the remote and snowy environs of Canada's mostly untamed wilderness.

There are a lot of prospectors in that area, but John Thornton (HARRISON FORD) isn't one of them. With his marriage having failed following the death of his son, John is interested only in living a life of solitude, although he enjoys his brief encounters with Buck. The two are reunited when the mail delivery route is shut down and the dog sled team is purchased by Hal (DAN STEVENS), a mean prospector who doesn't take kindly to John offering advice or stepping in to protect the dog from abuse.

When Hal has had enough of the dog, Buck becomes John's companion as they set out further into the wilderness. But with Hal wanting revenge on John and Buck hearing the call of the wild as related to a pack of wolves he encounters, it's uncertain whether John and Buck's bond will persevere.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10

The old saying in Hollywood is to never work with kids or animals. Most likely, that stemmed from the unpredictability of both sets of "wildlife," the fact that they can easily upstage their adult counterparts, and that their well-being and safety is directly in the hands of those both in front of and behind the camera.

Of course, some scripts require kids and/or animals as big parts of their stories, and thus working with them obviously has to occur. But what if in today's age of whiz-bang visual effects, you could create digital versions and thus not risk life, limb, being upstaged or having to deal with unexpected behavior?

Well, to quote Dr. Ian Malcolm from "Jurassic Park," "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could they didn't stop to think if they should." Granted, he was referring to cloned dinosaurs and the havoc they could potentially wreak. But the thought nonetheless applies to the latest cinematic iteration of Jack London's classic nature tale, "The Call of the Wild."

In past versions to hit the silver screen, the story's central dog has been played by flesh and blood canines, just like films featuring Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Benji and so on. Here, however, the pooch has been created via the various combinations of zeros and ones stemming from a motion-capture performance by Terry Notary pretending to be a dog.

While some of the visuals work quite well ( that include other dogs, wolves and even snowy environs settings for the humans), at times Buck the main dog looks, well, to be blunt, quite fake, mostly in some of his movements.

It doesn't help that director Chris Sanders (who's making his live-action debut following animated films such as "How to Train Your Dragon" and "Lilo & Stitch) can't really decide whether to keep the pooch true to real-life form, or have him feature some anthropomorphic traits that simply feel more inclined for an animated pic featuring talking animals (although to be fair, the film's villain -- played by Dan Stevens -- does feel modeled after cartoon bad guy Snidely Whiplash).

That not only includes his interactions with the film's narrator (Harrison Ford) who finally shows up in full in the film's better second half, but also his dealings with an alpha dog named Spitz that simply has too many human elements to be taken seriously (at least by adults, kids probably won't mind).

Unlike others, I didn't have a problem with screenwriter Michael Green taking some liberties with London's century-plus-old work, including upping the ante in terms of action and peril. The basic tale is the same. The pooch is dog-napped and sold into servitude, first to a duo of Canadians (Omar Sy and Cara Gee) running a remote mail delivery service and then to a mean prospector (the aforementioned Stevens) before eventually setting in as Ford's character's companion.

The actor brings palpable gravitas to the role of a man wanting nothing more than solitude and a bottle of booze to deal with his son's death and subsequent dissolution of his marriage, but finds a reason to keep moving forward thanks to the pooch who seems to know exactly what's best for the human.

Those unnatural canine attributes, the film's uncertainty about how to portray the dog and some of the visuals that simply look artificial undermine what's otherwise a decent offering. The end result is a mixed bag that might not be the chaos that Jeff Goldblum's character predicted with the dinos, but definitely makes you think that those involved should have more carefully considered the choice to use technology rather than a real pup. "The Call of the Wild" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 13, 2020 / Posted February 21, 2020

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