The Screen Scene: Call of the Wild

The Screen Scene with Scott Phillips

Here’s an interesting piece of movie trivia. Call of the Wild is the first new film to be released by 20th Century Studios, the production company that was known for decades as 20th Century Fox. What was the last film produced by 20th Century Pictures before it became 20th Century Fox?

The answer is the 1935 adaptation of … Call of the Wild starring Clark Gable. Coincidence? Maybe not. If you win a million dollars on Jeopardy with that little tidbit, be sure to send me a gift card.

At face value, Call of the Wild by Jack London seems like odd source material for a family film playing theaters in 2020. The novel is about a dog named Buck who is kidnapped from his California home and put into service as a sled dog in the gold rush of 1890’s Alaska.

Buck begins to grow wilder as he’s exposed to the harshness of the Alaskan wilderness. He feels drawn to a local wolf pack where he can embrace his true nature away from mankind.

With its animal-on-animal violence, human-on-animal abuse, and a main character who wants nothing more than to sever his ties to humankind, Call of the Wild isn’t exactly the focus group definition of a children’s film. So how do you adapt such a novel to the big screen in the 21st century?

The answer is simple: you ignore most of the novel and make Beethoven Goes to the Yukon instead. In this film version, Buck is kidnapped into a life of adventure. The only call of the wild he hears is the occasional howl of a cute little lady wolf. It’s like Lady and the Tramp set in 19th century Alaska.

When it comes to the latest family films, production companies want their animation to look life-like, but then they spend millions turning real animals into animated versions of themselves. Call of the Wild is a strange looking blend of real animals, computer animation and human actors in motion capture suits.

Depending on the scene, Buck can look like a dog with realistic human expressions, or he can look like Scooby Doo. It’s distracting to say the least.

Buck’s primary human companion is John Thornton played by Harrison Ford. For the first 45 minutes of the film, Ford is little more than a voiceover narrator. For the final hour of the movie, Ford becomes Buck’s reluctant owner and lives out his dream of prospecting for gold in a place so remote it rests off the far edge of John Thornton’s map.

Ford has gotten a lot of grief over the past few years for “phoning in” his performances and even making fun of his roots in adventure films like Star Wars and the Indiana Jones franchise. But, you’ve got to hand it to an actor who is still throwing punches at age 77 instead of playing kindly grandfatherly types.

Call of the Wild is what I refer to as “an eye of the beholder” film. Its entertainment value very much depends on who is watching it. For this film critic who sees hundreds of films a year, I thought it was a silly waste of time. But, the children who attended my advance screening were laughing and clapping at the adventures of Buck and his fellow pack dogs.

So, the jaded 50-year-old film critic gives Call of the Wild two out of five popcorn buckets, but the dog-loving youngster in your house will probably give it four out of five.

Call of the Wild opens in theaters nation-wide on Thursday, February 20th.

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