The Call of the Wild is the latest adaptation of Jack London’s 1903 novel, this time coming to us from normally animation director Chris Sanders. Chris Sanders started out working for Disney, holding both a writing and directing credit on Lilo and Stitch before moving to Dreamworks to direct the first How to Train Your Dragon film and The Croods, though he hasn’t actually directed much since. I was actually kind of surprised to find out he’s actually the voice of Stitch.
In the screenplay department we have Michael Green. Now he’s written quite a few films, including being one of the screenwriters of Blade Runner 2049. The Call of the Wild though is ultimately a very hard adaptation to do. It’s based on a very old book and it’s been adapted several times; what are you going to do this time? Well, I’ll get into that.
If you haven’t seen any of the previous adaptations of The Call of the Wild or read the book, it’s basically about a sled dog named Buck who is taken from his home in the Deep South and taken north to the snowy environments of, I believe, Alaska. The film recounts his struggles with becoming a sled dog for a postal service led by Omar Sy’s Perrault, and eventually going on a journey with Harrison Ford’s John Thornton who’s come to the North in order to find some solace after the death of his son. The Call of the Wild’s biggest factor that’s been used in the trailer is that all the animals have been created using CGI. There are no actual animals on screen, and it’s at that point when you realise the biggest issue with this film – this is a film that really relies on its special effects… and none of them are any good! It’s a bit of a problem when you write down notes for what you thought of the film and then realise that Matthew Buck said virtually everything you’re going to say about this movie in his review, but I’ll do my best to not copy him. But the point still stands; I’m with him on this one!
At no point when I was watching this movie did I think those are real animals, it was more, ‘Oh my God, they transported a bunch of cartoon characters into the real world.’ Now, in a film like Sonic the Hedgehog, that makes a lot of sense, and some films will do it because it’s simply too dangerous to have a live version of that animal that’s even well-trained. But this is hardly Life of Pi. Now, Life of Pi, that film has groundbreaking special effects to bring to life several animals into that environment, but they ultimately made them feel realistic. Again, these feel like animation characters, not surprising considering that this film has been directed by a director who normally does animated films. This is ultimately the problem.
The 1903 novel is not a kid’s book and it’s far from it. As a result, the screenplay has to do a ton of tweaks and changes to get it to where it can be. Now I haven’t actually read the book for this film, but I am aware there are quite significant changes. The fact of the matter is though, again, as Matthew Buck pointed out, why wouldn’t you just train a bunch of dogs? They are really easily to train! Where the effects are shining however is the background effects, some of them at least. I assumed most of this film was shot on location but apparently the majority of these scenes were shot on a film set, so they did a pretty good job with that. But again, I can’t understand why you’d even bother at that point – surely, it’s actually slightly cheaper to make the film a fully animated film? If you’re really committed to go down this route, just make everyone motion capture and do it like Tintin from a few years ago; that film really was successful in blending live action with animation. But at the end of the day, it was ultimately an animated film, which made it all the better.
Not to mention that with the exception of Harrison Ford and Omar Sy, it feels like the entire cast is phoning this one in. Dan Stevens gives probably the least subtle performance of his entire career to this point. Karen Gillan is in the film for like five minutes for one of the most thankless cameos and the same goes for Bradley Whitford who, until I actually looked up the IMDb page of this film, I completely forgot was in it. The only other cast member I kind of liked in this film was Cara Gee who plays Perrault’s wife, Françoise, but that’s only because those two play off each other pretty well.
The fact of the matter is though, ultimately the filmmakers want the effects to be the star of the show, and none of them are believable. All of them just look awful; none of them feel lifelike. (Again, going back to Life of Pi, that tiger feels like you literally reach out and touch it and feel the fur.) None of the animals really look real but Buck especially doesn’t look real. I think people who work in special effects will be able to see all the individual megabytes and pixels that have actively gone into making that character, and in my head when I was watching it, I was seeing a bunch of those behind the scene footage clips where you see all the individual layers that go into making an effect like this. If I’m doing that, you’re not buying the effect, and I’m saying that as someone who doesn’t mind the use of digital effects. I think digital effects can be great but the problem with digitals effects are when you get films like this that use it as crutch, and as a result Buck doesn’t blend into the environment, he more subsides into it.
What’s more, this film feels like it’s two films in one. It’s very clear that they have struck a middle ground with the pacing for this film. This film almost feels like it goes through two three-act structures, and as a result, it has two cartoonishly evil villains, the previously mentioned Hal played by Dan Stevens who’s a cartoonishly evil gold prospector and another dog named Sky who feels like a clone of the villain from Balto, another film I know has quite a few connections to this film in the sense of I thought the writers and directors definitely saw that film when they were making this one. This all comes together to make this one of the weirdest films I’ve seen in a long time. I can’t understand what the process was making this. This is one of the last films that 20th Century pictures made before the Disney/Fox merger, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it comes out down the line that this was a rather troubled production. The film certainly feels like it’s a product of being shelved for a later release.
Not gonna lie, I wasn’t a big fan of The Call of the Wild. For a film that really relies so hard on its special effects, it actively fails in that department and thus the whole film almost comes apart. I don’t find it really cute and charming; I just find it weird. The environments are great, and the effects used to make those are great, but the animals just look well off, and it’s very clear a lot of liberties have been taken with the source material so the writers have only half adapted it. As a result, this film’s a bit of a mess that ultimately makes you wonder why the hell it wasn’t an animated film. There’s not much really to say about the film; it is ultimately going to probably be a footnote in the year, and I just left it thinking, ‘well, that was a very weird experience.’ If you really want to see this film, might I suggest you wait for this one to come on Netflix. It’s definitely going to probably do better there than it is here.
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