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The Call of the Wild (Movie Review)

A scruffy Harrison Ford and a big CGI dog go on a surprisingly touching search for peace.

About the Film

If you’ve ever yearned to see a scruffy, down-and-out Harrison Ford go on an extended nature walk with a large CGI dog, then you’re in luck! The Call of the Wild is here to scratch that itch. Adapted from the classic source material by Jack London, the new film (directed by Chris Sanders) is another retelling of the classic “boy and his dog” tale. Throughout the film, Harrison Ford (who, even as 77 years old, remains as awesome as ever) ponders the destiny of him and Buck (his dog). While the destiny of this film adaption is likely not to become a beloved classic, it is nevertheless a charming and even inspiring story. Viewers hoping for a thrilling adventure story or an entertaining dog movie for their kids will likely be disappointing by this mellow and more contemplative story. Yet, and despite its lamentable overuse of computer technology, The Call of the Wild is a delicate and surprisingly weighty story of optimism and the search for peace in the middle of a changing and difficult world.

For Consideration

On the Surface—(Profanity, Sexual content, violence, etc.).

Profanity:  One minor profanity (“oh h—“), and one implied swear (“son of a —”)       

Sexuality: None.  

Violence: A character is killed in a burning building, although the moment is not depicted on screen.         

Beneath the Surface— (Themes, philosophical messages, worldview, etc.)

  • Nature vs. Technology

It’s time to address the elephant in the room (or, rather, the “big CGI dog” in the room). There is an odd and often distracting irony at the heart of this film. The story is largely a glorification of nature and the outdoors, and the need to follow the “call to the wild” and return to our roots. At the same time, the film uses tons of technology and computer effects to tell this message. The most glaring example is the decision to use an entirely CGI dog. Whereas other recent films (The Lion King and Jungle Book) have reached new heights in the realism and believability of computer animated animals, The Call of the Wild is not fooling anybody. Buck looks like a big CGI dog; a fact made all the more obvious by his frequent interaction with human characters (something Lion King and Jungle Book did not have to worry about).

I worried that the overuse of CGI would take me out of the film, and for the first third or so of the film, it did. Eventually, however, I did grow accustomed to the CGI graphics and was able to appreciate the movie for what it was. While the decision to use CGI animals allows for several moments of amusing facial expression and emoting, one still wonders how the film would have played with real animals. What a clear (and sobering) picture of 2020, when we can give lip service to the importance of returning to nature, all while staring at a big digital screen and a bunch of wildlife that were created entirely on a computer in Los Angeles. The “call of the wild,” indeed.

  • The Search for Peace

Harrison Ford’s character is struggling with the loss of his son, and the resulting deterioration of his marriage. Buck is struggling with pursing his animal instincts in a cruel and constantly shifting world that seeks ever to repress or beat those instincts out of him. If you’ve ever seen a movie like this, you know what to expect. Through their bond, they embark on a journey (both literary and metaphorically) to achieve this peace. Some Christians may take issue with the film’s apparent answer to this quest (essentially, to return to nature and our roots), but the film doesn’t whack viewers over the head with any sort of Noble Savage or pantheistic philosophy. Taken on a broader level, the story consistently affirms that, despite how cruel the world may seem, there is reason for optimism and to keep pressing forward.   

Final Verdict

I love me some Harrison Ford, and I prefer dogs to cats, so I may be a more forgiving and receptive audience for this film than others. The Call of the Wild is not a great movie, but I think it is certainly a good movie—and that’s all it really needed to be. Despite having a dog as one of its primary characters, this is very human story. The director’s willingness to resist giving into the temptation to Hollywood-ize the tale with spectacle or emotional manipulation (no dramatic sweeping musical scores or overly drawn-out emotional story beats), allows the touching human element to rise to the surface, and makes this a film worth experiencing (big CGI dog and all) 

Recommendation: It is worth checking out. Seeing it in the theaters is not necessarily, although the large screen does allow you to become immersed in the beautiful scenery and landscapes.     

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