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In January, before the onset of the pandemic, I dragged a pair of classmates away from our college work in favour of watching one of the most prevalently advertised films since the closing months of 2019. We were approaching the deadline for our coursework submission; thus socialisation was slowly becoming scarce, and whilst my friends were leaping at any form of leaving the studio, I was simply itching to review a film. A trip to the cinema seemed like the ideal plan.
The Call of the Wild looked promising on the surface. I don’t think any of us were expecting it to be anything special or ground-breaking, just a pleasant, mediocre dog film. Its trailer had pleasing cinematography, Buck was cute, and the feature was directed by Chris Sanders – one of the leading faces behind the production of several Disney masterpieces, including Lilo and Stitch. ‘Great choice!’ I thought, excitedly, taking my seat in the almost empty screening with jumpy anticipation.
I was wrong.
So, what were we, and the three other people we shared the cinema with, actually victims of? And why is The Call of the Wild, in my opinion, such a terrible movie, despite it gaining a decent 62% on Rotten Tomatoes?
What was good about it? I’ll start by saying that the character designs of the dogs were okay. The aesthetic was fantastic. The camera work was of high quality. I felt immersed in the surroundings we were placed into. The natural setting and soundscapes were beautiful. The music was by the legendary John Powell, though it wasn’t his best performance. It wasn’t what you would associate with generically bad film; there was clear work and funding put into this in some departments. Similar to Cats, another notoriously bad movie that blended real actors with heavy CGI, the frames were beautifully stylised and the film had a clear, authentically constructed aesthetic – the money behind the production was very evident, but maybe that was what angered me the most. Furthermore, until you see behind the scene footage demonstrating how the CGI dog in this film was modelled around a person wearing a skin-tight grey jumpsuit, walking around on all fours whilst on set, taking this film seriously is quite frankly, impossible.
Our story? We follow a St. Bernard named Buck, modelled on Chris Sanders’s real dog of the same name. He has a drive to explore and energy to burn but his rich family home is restricted and mundane. One night, he is stolen from the neighbourhood and sold overseas to a sled dog handler who delivers mail to other towns. Buck is introduced to the rest of his new team and its lead dog, a husky named Spitz whom my friend noticed bore far too much resemblance to Steele from Don Bluth’s Balto. It’s with these dogs that Buck learns the importance of the pack, uncovers his great leadership, and receives help from his ancestral intuition.
Just as our plot appears to be developing, Buck’s sled dog handler jarringly sells all of the team for no apparent reason that has been alluded to, and they’re bought by our antagonist, Hal (Dan Stevens), moving his wife and antiques on a sled across a hazardous area with too little snow. Just at the right time, Thornton (Harrison Ford) swoops forward and tears a fatigued Buck from Hal’s ruthless grip. Hal later turns out be the antagonist of the film; the most aggressive, malicious character without an incentive for anything he does. Thanks to poor writing, he wants to kill Thornton for, I don’t know, rescuing a dog?
This movie had the potential to make great characters. It suffered because they lacked development. Old characters we were starting to become interested in disappeared, and new ones appeared sporadically, each lacking in depth as much as the last. This meant that we ended up having no emotional investment in any of them, so when one of the protagonists was shot and later died, I felt nothing.
The pacing was awful. The story progressed too quickly and jumped from one meaningless plot to another. A lot of scenes seemed to be fillers, the characters engaging in interactions that told us nothing about their motivations or advanced the unfurling action. There were aspects of the film that I thought would be followed up, but they are abandoned and unresolved. The story could have been so easily and effectively tied together by just focusing on any one of them.
Buck could easily have been replaced by a dog actor in most of his scenes; this would have made his movements seem more natural and believable. Instead, we got a computerised model that moves like a Nintendog and seems to bear too many human-like expressions. In more shots than we needed, Buck would raise his paw to give us a conspicuous demonstration of how inaccurately his dislocated joints worked. The way he frolicked through landscapes of heavy CGI seemed over-exaggerated. It seemed as if the animators were confused by whether they were depicting him as a caricature of a dog rather than a realistic animal. Unfortunately, this conflict was evident.
I think, overall, the story was supposed to allude to Buck learning about the wild side within him, realising he is strong and powerful, at one with his ancestors — he wasn’t a simple house dog. But how he realised this was not in the right storyline for me. In fact, what was the storyline? This film didn’t seem to have one! After all this, I’d sat here for 100 minutes of my life and wondered what I could take from this film, which had no story, no aim, and no clear message. I felt as if I’d wasted my time.
The film finished. My friend had found more entertainment in her reclining seat. My other friend had only just realised that Buck and the white wolf were more than just friends as she had been on her phone for most of the runtime. Two girls sat at the back of the cinema silently and unenthusiastically walked away. I turned around and met eye to eye with the only other screening attendee – a man in a tuxedo, typing up what I assumed was a review. We laughed together, and we laughed hard. No more words were needed.