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Movie review: This ‘Call of the Wild’ is just too mild

Ed Symkus
More Content Now
The real Harrison Ford poses with the digital Buck.

Yep, it’s time for yet another new film adaptation of Jack London’s 1903 novel “The Call of the Wild.” There was a silent version in 1923, which focused on the life of Buck, the pet dog-turned-sled puller. Then came a 1935 version, with Clark Gable and Loretta Young, that was more concerned with the star actors than the dog. And there followed two more films, both forgettable, but at least concentrating on the dog, in 1972 and, made for TV, in 1997.

But let’s take a trivia break. The 1935 “Call of the Wild” was the last film to be released under the banner of Twentieth Century Pictures, before it became Twentieth Century Fox. The 2020 edition is the first film to be released under Twentieth Century Studios, after the word Fox was dropped from the name. Armed with that information, you will be a hit at your next cocktail party.

But unless you’re planning to chaperone a young child to see the new film - which is a decent kid-centric adventure movie - there’s no need to check it out on your own, especially if you’re a discerning viewer who recalls the London book.

Yes, the film remains focused on the dog, even though no dog is actually seen in the film, as big Buck is a 100% digital creation with a very expressive face who might as well be wearing a big “F for Fake” sign on its forehead. In fact, all of the dogs, and all of the other animals in the film don’t really exist. And, surprisingly, the folks at Disney, the parent company of Twentieth Century, have not used the same creative flourishes and believability that was on display in the all-digital “The Lion King.”

But the visual glitches are small potatoes when considering the problems with this film. Screenwriter Michael Green (“Logan” and “Blade Runner 2049”) comes up short here, and his use of the celebrated London novel as merely a jumping off point rather than a blueprint for the film is an egregious error.

Yes, it’s still about Buck, enjoying a happy, relaxed life of comfort in a California household in the 1890s. And it’s still about his travails after he’s dognapped and sold off in the Yukon territory where, during the Gold Rush days, a dog of his size and strength is just what was needed to pull sleds across long, snow-covered distances. And it even has another main - but secondary to the dog - character named John Thornton (Harrison Ford) who helps turn things around for Buck.

But Green has taken absurd liberties with London’s often rugged story. He’s cleaned things up, taken the edge off. He’s even - and this is the worst part - removed a large, important group of characters - there are no Canadian Indians to be seen - all in the name of what weak-minded people are passing off as political correctness. The mayhem that’s now done in the story is committed by a fancy-dressing, money-hungry, hot-tempered white fellow named Hal (Dan Stevens, overacting). The character does appear in the book, and he’s not a good man, but there he was Bruce Banner, and now he’s a raging Hulk.

That Green has also imbued the film with some effective comedy is a good thing, even though most of it is of the cheap-laugh variety and is based on big Buck’s ineptitude and clumsiness. Green also inserts a couple of scenes of great peril, though everything is settled before too much concern can be spent on them. One of the script’s biggest annoyances is the overuse of narration, all of it by Ford, none of which makes any sense when you think about his character’s circumstances at the end of the film. The most mystifying component here is that right after John Thornton tries to warn Hal of the dangers he’s facing, the film jumps forward in time, with no explanation, as if a reel has been skipped.

At least there’s still a romantic side story for Buck, but it’s accompanied by a poorly written (cleaned up) ending that will leave young viewers asking their parents what happened.

Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“The Call of the Wild”
Written by Michael Green; directed by Chris Sanders
With Harrison Ford, Dan Stevens, Omar Sy, Cara Gee
Rated PG