MOVIE REVIEW OF “THE CALL OF THE WILD”

During the Klondike Gold Rush of 1890s, a rugged sled dog was an avidly sought-after commodity worth its weight in gold.  The initial shortage of canines during the gold rush generated such a demand for man’s best friend that prices skyrocketed.  Records in A Historic Resource Study for the Seattle Unit of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park reveal prospectors were prepared to pay between $300-$400 for individual dogs.


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They utilized these dogs primarily to haul sleds laden with supplies through the snow-swept, ice-encrusted wilderness.  Principally, the first mail services relied on dogs.  Furthermore, records indicated the market for canines reached an all-time high when as many as 5000 dogs were shipped to Alaska.  Of course, the demand for horses and other draught animals rivaled the dog trade.  Nevertheless, novelist Jack London immortalized the dogs rather than the horses in his classic novella The Call of the Wild.

The Saturday Evening Post magazine published London’s tale as a four-part serial in 1903.  Since then several films, as well as a television show, have commemorated this landmark yarn about the survival of the fittest.  Clark Gable starred in the black & white, 1935 version, while Charlton Heston toplined the 1972 color remake.


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While these two films were theatrical releases, a television adaptation starring Rutger Hauer that aired in 1997 won critical acclaim, too.  The latest version of “The Call of the Wild” (*** OUT OF ****) takes fewer liberties with the story material than earlier incarnations.  Like Gable’s “Call of the Wild,” Buck is portrayed as a St. Bernard/Scotch Collie mix rather than as a German shepherd in the 1972 remake.

Nevertheless, “Blade Runner 2049” scenarist Michael Green has tampered with the tragic ending.  No, Buck doesn’t die!  Neither do Native American savages massacre John Thornton, like in the novel!  “Raiders of the Lost Ark” star Harrison Ford is cast appropriately as Thornton, and Green has given him a bittersweet backstory not found in the London tale.

Like London’s novel, “How to Train Your Dragon” director Chris Sanders and Green depict Buck’s life as a pampered pet, who lives with a prominent citizen, Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford of “Get Out”) and his daughters.  Later, he reverts to being a ferocious canine and draws closer to his wolfish origins.

After establishing Buck’s idyllic life with the judge, the filmmakers plunge our heroic hound into jeopardy. A sinister town citizen abducts Buck and sells him to Yukon traders.  The 1935 version skipped the scene where Buck ran afoul of the man in the red shirt.  In the novel, this dastard acquainted Buck with the law of the club and nearly beat him to death.

Eventually, Buck finds himself sold to an amiable French-Canadian couple, Perrault (Omar Sy of “Jurassic World”) and his wife Françoise (Cara Gee of “Sundowners”), who need stout, hardy animals to deliver bundles of mail in spite of the treacherous condition of the terrain.  Naturally, two-time Oscar-winning, “Saving Private Ryan” lenser Janusz Kaminski captures the scenic splendor of the wilderness.

Moreover, since he enjoyed a cozy life in sunny southern California, this brawny Saint Bernard isn’t prepared for either the extreme climate change or the arduous regimen of life in the frozen Alaskan north.  Indeed, Buck has never seen snow!  He must learn the hard way while the other dogs regard him as an outsider until he ingratiates himself to them.

This journey of hardship constitutes just one of the many obstacles which Buck must grow accustomed to while he learns not only the basics of life in a dog sled team, but the necessity also to meet a rigid, time-oriented mail schedule.  Ultimately, Buck refuses to grovel to Spitz, the haughty alpha dog who commands the point position in the team hierarchy and harasses the other dogs to do his will.

At various points, Buck crosses paths with a sympathetic senior citizen. John Thornton (Harrison Ford of “Star Wars”) has turned his back on civilization owing to an unforgettable personal tragedy.  Now, Thornton wants only to vanish into oblivion of the Yukon teeming with hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic prospectors.

Since Disney produced this wildlife movie through its Twentieth Century Pictures, most of the scenes with Buck and the other dogs in the wild are designed for comic relief until the inevitable showdown between Buck and Spitz over leadership of the team.

The chief difference between this account of “The Call of the Wild” and its predecessors are the dogs themselves.  Sanders and company rely on ersatz canines created through the artistry of computer-generated special effects.  Although he is modeled on an actual Kansas City rescue dog, Buck is still a skillful CGI creation.

Initially, you can spot the difference, but even this obvious artifice doesn’t diminish the film’s capacity to entertain audiences.  Virtually every scene of the dogs weathering the travails of snow and ice couldn’t have been achieved with flesh & blood dogs.  In one exciting scene, Buck saves Françoise after she steps through the ice. Plunging into the depths of the frigid river, he rescues her. Moreover, the producers didn’t want to frighten family-friendly audiences with Buck and Spitz’s snarling rivalry.

The weakest link in “The Call of the Wild” isn’t the bogus dogs, but the melodramatic, mustache-twirling villain, Hal (Dan Stevens of “Downtown Abby”), and his equally clueless companions who dream of striking it rich.

Hal and company become the laughingstock of the Klondike when they pack every possible luxury item on their sled, including an antique Victrola record player, despite the fact their canines cannot possibly haul all of their possessions without bogging them down in the wilderness.  Later, after he intervenes to save Buck from the cruelty of these tinhorns, Thornton marks himself as Hal’s mortal enemy.

At this point, Buck latches onto Thornton and lives for the joy of serving his new master.  Although more than a century has passed, “The Call of the Wild” has lost neither its spontaneity nor its sentimentality about man’s best friend.

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