CGI can be such a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that it allows filmmakers to show things that were unheard of thirty years ago and a curse in that an over-reliance on the technology needlessly inflates budgets and brings an air of fakeness to movies that it didn’t need to.
Take The Call of the Wild, for example. It’s such a great book — one of the first chapter books I’d ever read. It’s short, simple… a great story about how people come and go out of the life of a kidnapped dog named Buck as he braves the conditions of 1800’s Klondike territory and begins a slow transition into a wild animal. You’d think that it would be easy to make such a simple film… but you would be wrong, apparently.
I’ve seen several versions of The Call of the Wild from a pretty faithful yet corny animated movie to a forehead-slappingly bad 2012 adaptation that put the bare bones of the story in the modern age.
2020’s The Call of the Wild is somewhere in between. In some ways it’s faithful, but in the most important, it’s not. It sacrifices the characters, both good and bad, who come and go throughout Buck’s life with the steady starpower of Harrison Ford who, to his credit, actually looks interested to play the part of John Thorton… which is an anomaly in Harrison Ford’s career.
Normally, that’s not a bad thing as this is a common denominator in Call of the Wild films, to make John Thorton the main character since the main character in the book is a dog. What sucks about this movie is how sanitized the story has become.
Hal, for some reason or another, had been made the villain of a story where there really is no villain. Hal, in case you forgot or never read the book, is a spoiled and idiotic person who abuses the dogs and gets his companions killed because of his lack of sledding knowledge. He also appears in the book for, like… maybe a chapter or two. Here, he’s a man bent on revenge for reasons that I honestly can’t comprehend.
There’s more… Hal is placed as the antagonist of the film in place of the Yeehats, a Native American tribe who kill Thorton and who Buck, in turn, kills right back. This is a mistake because of what the Yeehats represent… Buck’s final break from fear of and loyalty to humans. Without the Yeehats, Buck just wanders away at the end and it means nothing.
I mean, yeah… that could have been represented by Buck killing Hal… except Buck doesn’t kill Hal. Hal kinda dies in a sequence worthy of Laurel and Hardy when Buck pushes him into a burning building and then, coincidentally, the building collapses on him.
I guess Buck had to be blameless and innocent? I mean, heck… he doesn’t even kill a rabbit earlier in the movie. He catches it and then lets it go because he’s just a big sweetheart.
The entire movie is shockingly tame and free of the book’s themes of human cruelty and the brutality of nature. There’s little on-screen death, all of the dogs survive the ordeal (which, in the books, they most certainly do not), and even the infamous Spitz is portrayed as a jock instead of the wild animal he is in the book.
I know I’m not supposed to run circles around the source material because this is an adaptation and no adaptation is going to be 100 percent faithful to the source material, but even if I had never read The Call of the Wild, I would have been disappointed with the toothless and, to be honest, dull movie that resulted.
The main breaking leg of this movie is the choice to portray Buck not with a real dog because that would have been too easy. Instead, they portray him for the entire movie with CGI making him more expressive… and more fake. The dog never looks like he’s there. He looks like an unfinished special effect made of plastic. The expressions on his face kill any suspension of disbelief, and it torpedos the entire movie because it looks so ridiculous.
I can only compare this to Gollum from Lord of the Rings. That entire film series depended on Gollum to work and to be convincing enough to be considered a performance and not a special effect. If Gollum didn’t work, the movie would have failed.
Buck didn’t work. Buck didn’t look real. Buck looked like an out of place cartoon character and my brain never stopped thinking that he looked like a plastic toy. It brought me out of the illusion every time he was on camera and he was on camera a lot.
In the end, this is an unsatisfying movie that never really knows what it wants to be. Is it for kids? Adults? Who is the audience? What is it trying to say?
Its an adaptation, I know… but it’s a bad adaptation.