We can post a discussion for Sonic the Hedgehog, if anyone asks, and we’ll have a review soon of The Invisible Man, see? But for now, we’re reviewing a Disney family movie that opened to… a disappointing box office. The Call of the Wild isn’t exactly our usual genre, but this adaptation does feature Harrison Ford and a LOT of CGI.
And I’m willing to bet quite a few people who check in on this site have read Jack London’s most famous work. If you haven’t, you probably should.
But should you see this most recent film adaptation?
Cast and Crew
Directed by Chris Sanders
Written by Michael Green from the novel by Jack London
Harrison Ford as John Thornton
A fortune in CGI as Buck the Dog and nearly every other animal
Omar Sy as Perrault
Cara Gee as Françoise
Dan Stevens as Hal
Bradley Whitford as Judge Miller
Jean Louisa Kelly as Katie Miller
Michael Horse as Edenshaw
Karen Gillan as Mercedes
Colin Woodell as Charles
Micah Fitzgerald as the Man in the Red Sweater
Heather McPhaul as Head Cook
Adam Fergus as James
Stephanie Czajkowski as Postmaster
Abraham Benrubi as Skookum Bench King
Thomas Adoue Polk as Assistant Postmaster
Aria Lyric Leabu as Alice Miller
Salem Meade as Molly Miller
Brad Greenquist as Skagway Dog Seller
Scott MacDonald as Dawson Dog Seller
Wes Brown as Mountie
A large domestic canine gets dognapped and sold in the Klondike, where he has numerous adventures and slowly answers an ancestral call….
Harrison Ford, a fine actor who has had more than his share of experience working with special effects and furry co-stars, works extremely well as John Thornton, and the film’s best moments occur when he and CGI Buck share the screen. Granted, I think he might have worked better with a real Buck or even a blend of the two. Nevertheless, Ford retains his ability to imbue some pretty cheesy dialogue with weight.
I address the changes in a note below. Some serve the film adaptation well, while some are neutral. Others are ill-conceived. Both the roughly violent and thoughtful but problematic edges of the source material have been blunted considerably. The degree of cheesiness and anthropomorphization, while hardly surprising in a Disney family film, does much to undercut the original story.
Originality: 1/6 The novel (1903) proved a huge success, and has never gone out of print. Its publication coincided with the early years of the film industry, and it has been adapted to both big and small screen at least ten times previously.
Effects: 6/6 In addition to the vaunted and vaulting CGI animals, the movie also seamlessly blends practical and digital effects to create the far north of the late 1800s– all, apparently, without leaving California.
Emotional Response: 4/6
Overall: 4/6 This is a serviceable adaptation of a classic novel. It blunts the source material, but it features some excellent visual effects, and it works moderately well as a family film.
The Call of the Wild (2020) receives 30/42
Any movie adaptation of a novel will change the source material. I’ve compiled a short list of changes with the help of the internet to boost decades-old memories of a book I read at age thirteen, which had a significant impact on me:
1. Disney significantly reduces the violence found in London’s novel. The studio wants to protect its family marketing strategy, although even this version might be too intense in places for very young children.
2. The movie develops Buck’s backstory. I understand how Buck’s background can help develop his character, but I wasn’t thrilled with the form it took.
3. John Thornton does not appear until the second half of the novel. The movie gives him a couple of early encounters with Buck, some time before he teams up with the dog. Clearly, the filmmakers wanted to remind us that Harrison Ford was going to be in the movie.
4. In the novel, François and Perrault are likeable enough, but a lot rougher, especially with the dogs. In addition to softening their characters and giving them more comic moments, this movie makes changes to race and gender. The novel’s Perrault is a dark-skinned Quebecois, while François is Métis. The film’s Perrault is a Black man from Quebec– an unusual background for this time and place, but not unknown. Françoise is now a woman, though she retains an unspecified Native heritage. The pair appear to be some kind of couple.
5. In the movie, Thornton gets a tragic backstory, and he travels on his own. In the novel, he is one of three men, working together in the hope of making their fortunes. The changes make Thornton even more sympathetic, and allow us to focus on his bond with Buck.
6. Buck goes from being a strong and intelligent dog, somewhat anthropomorphized by London, to being a supercanine with near-human intelligence and perceptiveness. His dog team consists of a motley assortment of pooches who would almost certainly have died quick deaths working as sled dogs in the Yukon. The movie’s conflict between Buck and his rival, Spitz, ends with Spitz losing and leaving. In the novel, Buck kills him. These changes are intended to appeal to kids, but they weaken the story considerably.
7. The involvement of Indigenous characters in the story’s final events gets excised entirely. Instead, Thornton faces down against Hal, the jerk from the story’s middle, who, in this version, vengefully tracks him down for a final confrontation. A more faithful adaptation of the novel would have to address London’s racism, typical of his time and place. No easy solution exists that would fare well with a contemporary family audience, so Disney chooses to ignore the problem altogether.