By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)
It has been often said that CGI and motion-capture are necessary components of modern movie making. While there may be some truth to this argument, the over-reliance on these advances in technology can take from a film’s credibility and come across as a shamelessly cheap cheat. Such is the case with this technology’s heavy use in the 2019 adaptation of the popular Jack London novel, The Call of the Wild. Though the filmmakers utilize some practical sets and have cast real people as the human characters, the filmmakers quite heavily rely on CGI for some of the background settings and for the animal characters. The movie still manages to exude much heart and earnestness in its storytelling and character development, but the CG animals, particularly the main character Buck, often distract from the story’s gravity and realism.
Harrison Ford, who also serves as the narrator, stars as John Norton, a long-in-the-tooth prospector seeking gold in the Klondike. On two different occasions, Norton crosses paths with a remarkable plucky dog named Buck. Buck has already begun a frightening adventure, as he was stolen from his comfortable home in Santa Clara, California where he was spoiled by his beloved owner Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford). Buck ends up in the possession of Klondike mail carriers (Cara Gee, Omar Sy) where he channels into his primal instincts for strength and survival. Eventually, he ends up under the care of John Norton who remembers Buck from their meeting earlier. Throughout this trying and sometimes harrowing adventure Buck blossoms into a smarter and courageous dog quite removed from the silly spoiled pet he once was.
With an adapted screenplay by Michael Green, director Chris Sanders has actually succeeded in making a solid movie version of Jack London’s novel. The movie has an undeniably lovable charm and the lead characters are developed well enough for the story to have an impact on its audiences. But, like I previously noted the usually obvious CGI gives these strong foundations a bizarre cartoonish quality that feels mostly out of place. Had the producers gone with a completely animated approach to the movie, I probably would be writing a more favorable review.
Keeping the movie more grounded and in the moment are actors Harrison Ford, Omar Sy, and Cara Gee. All three of these actors give such strong performances that they manage to pull audiences back into the heart of the film, away from the sometimes cringey CGI action. Dan Stevens also stars as the greedy, villainous prospector Hal. His acting on the movie ranges from decent to over-the-top silliness. Other actors include Karen Gillan, Bradley Whitford, Colin Woodell, and Scott MacDonald; however, each of these actors have limited screentime. I must also acknowledge the hard work of actor Terry Notary who does the motion-capture work for Buck. Though he obviously put much effort and personality into the character, I feel that CGI was not the way to go.
Now, I totally understand that it can be difficult to work with real animals in movies. At the same time, that never stopped a lot of filmmakers from attempting this in the past. Had the filmmakers worked with real animals and limited the CGI, this movie would’ve worked way better. The foundations were there, but the execution just doesn’t stick the landing.