By Andrew Rodden
Chris Sanders’ 2020 film “The Call of the Wild” had me struggling to stay awake. You would think a movie with an avalanche, gun violence, and a naked Harrison Ford (he takes a bath in the third act) would be thrilling cinema, but it really isn’t. These moments may grab your attention, but others like them are unfortunately hard to come by in the rest of the film. What is left over is an edgeless family drama about a CGI dog traversing a CGI landscape, which does little to make you care about what happens on-screen.
Set during the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s, “The Call of the Wild” follows the journey of a St. Bernard and Scotch Collie dog, Buck (Terry Notary), who is stolen from his home in sunny California and sold to a duo of mail carriers in the Yukon. The mail carriers (Omar Sy and Karen Gillian) use Buck on their dog sled team and zoom through the snowy wilderness delivering mail.
After being resold to a wealthy and cranky gold prospector, Buck eventually finds his way to mountain hermit John Thornton (Harrison Ford). Ford actually seems to care about his performance in this movie, which is rare these days (especially those in the new Star Wars movies, woof!), but it looked like he was having quite a bit of fun here.
Much of the criticism of “The Call of the Wild” is placed on the uncanniness of Buck — a CGI dog. And rightly so — it is quite weird seeing Buck interact with very real actors — but I believe there is a more devious use of CGI in this film, that being the over-use of visual effects to digitally create the film’s landscape. We have all experienced movie characters that have their own ZIP code in the uncanny valley, with examples like the human characters in “Toy Story” (1995) and the entire cast of “Cats” (2019). The uncanniness of Buck is nothing new.
The Call of the Wild” was shot entirely in California, mostly in a Los Angeles production studio; none of it was shot on-location, which stretches the definition of what it means to be a “live-action” film. “The Revenant” (2014) should be more than enough motivation for filmmakers of all kinds to flock to the Canadian North for the awesome natural beauty. All the spectacle you need is right there, inherent to the landscape, but “The Call of the Wild” disregards this and opts for a digital imitation of the natural environment. Staying in the production studio and filming in front of a green screen is a critical failing of this movie.
I fear that this reflects a greater trend of considering a green-screened landscape as “good enough,” and I think that filmmakers should not be so willing to disregard on-location shooting, especially with the mammoth budgets movies like this receive. There really is something to the filmic representation of the natural world. It is gratifying to know that what appears on screen is footage from a spectacular place that actually exists.
I would be ignorant to think that the main inclination for the filmmakers and 20th Century Studios (newly renamed and acquired by Disney) was to create an art film, rather than a widely accessible family adventure drama that would offend as little of its target audience as it possibly could. As much as it was truly entertaining to see Harrison Ford as a movie’s main character again, “The Call of the Wild” does not bring much else to the table. It is worth the watch just for Ford, but you won’t miss anything if you doze off for the rest of the film.