Dropped Call, by Bob Connally

21 Feb

Jack London’s 1903 novel The Call of the Wild is the story of a dog torn between life as a pampered companion to humans and a life in his natural state as a wild animal. Chris Sanders’ new film adaptation is torn between the sensibilities of an animated kids movie and a dramatic live-action adventure that appeals to adults. This film’s inability to commit to one or the other leads to an ultimately dull movie that falls into that category of “Who is this for exactly?” It’s not a movie that will make you feel upset for having watched it, because you really won’t feel anything at all.

Buck is an enormous St. Bernard/Scotch Collie living comfortably in a big, beautiful house where he is well fed. To his owner, Judge Miller’s (Bradley Whitford) chagrin, Buck’s rambunctious behavior causes him problems and it’s unlikely that Judge Miller is terribly bothered when Buck is kidnapped right in front of his house. This big, kind-hearted dog is mistreated by his cruel captors but eventually learns to become the lead of a sled team, an alpha, and a friend to the broken-hearted John Thornton (Harrison Ford), all on his journey to discovering his true nature.

Sanders’ film gets off to a rocky start on two counts. Firstly, opening a movie with Harrison Ford narrating just immediately recalls his cringe-inducing narration in the original cut of Blade Runner, but the much bigger issue is the obvious CG look of Buck. As it turns out, dogs can live in the uncanny valley too. The opening sequence makes it clear enough why Sanders chose an animated dog as opposed to training a real one, as Buck moves in a way no real dog ever could. This may have been a sensible enough decision had Sanders and screenwriter Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) committed to making this a full-on kids adventure movie with an emphasis on fun. It wouldn’t have made Buck look any more real but at least having a fully CG animal who can move in exaggerated ways would have fit the tone of the film. The truth is though, that after the first couple of minutes it really never has that kids movie feel again.

Prior to directing The Call of the Wild, Chris Sanders had a three decade history of working almost exclusively on animated films, most notably as the director of Lilo & Stich and How to Train Your Dragon. Sanders’ live-action directorial debut feels as though it wants to be an animated film for much of its 100 minute running time. Its biggest show piece sequences lack any sense of peril because not only does Buck look fake, so do all of the other CG animals and much of the surrounding scenery. As the humans running the sled dog team early in the film, Omar Sy (The Intouchables) and Cara Gee do what they can to breathe some life into the movie but their characters are so thinly written that there’s little they can do. The real villain of the film is played by Dan Stevens, who is over the top in a way that would have fit an animated movie. It’s a performance that might have worked in another movie but as Stevens is a good actor and Sanders is clearly unsure of what his movie is, I’m inclined to lay the blame on Sanders for the performance not fitting the film it’s in. As Hal’s wife Mercedes, Karen Gillan is given nothing worthwhile to do with her very brief screentime. The fact she was cast in the role suggests that maybe there was originally more to it and that much of it may have been cut out. This adds to the overall sense that this is a movie just trying to hit big plot points quickly. It’s strange how a movie can breeze so quickly through things while simultaneously being so sluggish and dull.

The marketing of this film was built around the idea of the friendship between Harrison Ford and a dog. As it is, narration aside, Ford is merely peppered into the first half hour of The Call of the Wild before he truly takes center stage alongside Buck. His Thornton is a man grieving over the sudden loss of his son, something this film doesn’t explore to a great degree, which can be said of virtually every other element of the movie. While Ford seems to care about what he’s doing- something he seems to have gained back over the past few years after about a solid decade of seeming to want to be doing anything other than being in a movie- the film itself doesn’t really give him the opportunity to do much of anything. It’s not that the performance is bad, it’s that there’s nothing terribly memorable about it, which is entirely true of this movie as a whole. Near the end, Thornton says to Buck, “What an adventure we had,” and without missing a beat my internal monologue said with a shrug, “Not really.”

It’s hard to imagine this movie truly leaving an impression on anyone who sees it. It doesn’t seem like it would be any fun for kids, it’s not substantive as an adult drama, and it’s not adventurous enough to appeal to audiences of any age just looking to be entertained. Instead of leaving the house and paying good money to see The Call of the Wild, I recommend staying in and watching Togo on Disney+. Released a few months ago, Togo is the live-action sled dog movie that actually will appeal to the whole family. Willem Dafoe is fantastic in it (because of course he is), it’s solidly crafted, and it works nicely as an engaging drama. Also, the dogs are real so we actually connect with them. It works on every level that The Call of the Wild does not. So go watch Togo. It’s just sitting there waiting for you.

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