The Call of the Wild review – Harrison Ford is a dog’s best friend

The Indiana Jones actor elevates a fun if not formulaic, CGI-heavy adaptation of the beloved Jack London novel

These days CGI animal movies are a dime a dozen. Genuinely good CGI animal movies, meanwhile, are rarer than the gold nuggets driving much of the narrative in The Call of the Wild, the umpteenth adaptation of Jack London’s classic 1903 novel and the first to render its leading pooch, Buck, as a fully CG creation. Against the odds, though, this is not the computer-generated embarrassment its trailer suggested, but a surprisingly charming adventure that’s just thrilling and heartfelt enough to keep you invested.

So what’s the secret? Look closer at the credits and you might notice the person steering the ship is Chris Sanders, whose Lilo & Stitch looks more like one of Disney’s most brilliant and underrated animated features with each passing year. The Call of the Wild doesn’t reach the emotional heights of that Honolulu-based caper, nor does Sanders prove as gifted with live-action as he is with traditional animation (Brad Birds are not easy to find). Yet the film’s reliance on old-fashioned storytelling, paired with a vastly uncynical tone, allows it to stand out from the pack.

The plot sticks mostly to the events of the source material: Buck is a massive, clumsy St Bernard-Scotch collie who lives a care-free California existence, causing mild mayhem to the constant chagrin of his owners. One day he’s stolen by thieves looking to sell him for a big price, who ship him to the Yukon where he’s passed from owner to owner, learning the ways of the wild. Firstly he becomes a great mail carrying sled dog under the tutelage of a kind couple. Later he’s bought by a snivelling, two-dimensional villain (Dan Stevens) and his wife (Karen Gillian in a thankless part). Eventually, after a few chance encounters across the film’s first hour, he teams with grizzly prospector John Thornton (Ford) and together they head deep into the Canadian wilderness in search of enlightenment.

Harrison Ford doesn’t often emerge for a proper lead role these days, and has a tendency to phone in his bit parts. Here, though, he is engaged, charismatic, and genuinely seems to be enjoying himself, reaffirming whatever special magic it was that once made him the biggest and most beloved movie star on the planet. Battling the elements, taking charge of a canoe, and clambering over rocky terrain, he also gives a surprisingly physical performance – one that suggests another instalment in the Indiana Jones franchise might not be such a bad idea after all.

Buck, on the other hand, is never as convincing. Blame the eyes, or the weightlessness of his body as he bounds about the place, smashing into objects. The chemistry between a real man and a real dog can’t be faked, of course, and this Buck – apparently able to understand what humans are saying – creates an odd disconnect between the real and the fantastical. At times The Call of the Wild also seems to strain under the notion that its animals cannot talk; you can’t help but wonder what Sanders might have come up with had he been given licence to render the film with traditional animation instead.

Lively performances, elemental set-pieces, and moments of genuine beauty makes it easy to forgive the otherwise formulaic nature of the script. If one was being completely honest about it, there is basically nothing special about what Sanders has cooked up here, but in the wake of recent CGI animal misfires like Peter Rabbit, Dolittle, and Sonic the Hedgehog, watching The Call of the Wild feels a little bit like finding a gold nugget at the bottom of a river, however small.

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