" That’s zodiac nonsense. I control my life, not those stars. "
— Shirley Maclaine, Madame Sousatzka

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Chicago

Not a must-buy for owners of the original, but a better package than the previous release —Matt Anderson (DVD review...)

Zellweger, Gere, and Zeta-Jones add color to Chicago

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The Call of the Wild is one worth answering.

A Rare Breed

John (Harrison Ford) and Buck (CGI)
John (Harrison Ford) and Buck (CGI)

The Call of the Wild has an interesting pedigree. Of course, it’s based on the classic Jack London novel. You know the one; originally published in 1903, many kids through the decades have either been forced to read it or “strongly encouraged” to do so. Of those kids, it’s likely a rather small percentage actually paid attention to the story. While adventure is the hook, its greatest riches lie beneath the surface. Themes of destiny and values that put humanity and nature over temporal wealth are hard to appreciate as a 10-year-old.

Beyond that source material, this is the first major release for Twentieth Century Studios. The “Fox” in that famous fanfare imagery has been dumped just in time for this tale of dogs and wolves and foxes. On top of that, Twentieth Century Studios is the latest in Disney’s string of assimilations.

There’s some sort of irony, since the opening scenes have the look and feel of old-school Disney production values. Those from the Mouse House’s 1950s live-action movies, with titles like Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier, Old Yeller and Darbie O’Gill and the Little People. And that’s all intended as a compliment; in keeping with the source material’s heart, there’s a rare sense of innocence that is so old it feels fresh again in this production.

A Dog’s World

As a refresher on that story, it’s about a dog named Indiana. Oh, no. Wrong story. Wrong dog. This one’s about a dog named Buck, a large St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix. As the opening scenes show, Buck’s a menace to society. High society, or at least something close to it in the sunny, warm climate of Santa Clara, California. Buck’s is a comfortable life of outdoor picnics (which he crashes with wild abandon) and a large house full of those who love Buck and those who are wary of his playful — but damaging — antics.

It all takes a dramatic turn when Buck is dognapped and shipped out to Skagway, Alaska to join a dogsled for the Canadian mail service. A gold rush has attracted all sorts of adventurers and fortune seekers; the muscle of large dogs fetches a high price out there. And, as it’s lyrically put here, mail is life, it’s love and hope.

As Buck arrives on the edge of the wild Yukon frontier, there’s a chance encounter with a kindly old man named John Thornton (Harrison Ford, Mr. Indiana Jones himself, in a role for which he is perfectly suited). A dropped harmonica serves as the bonding agent between the two. They’ll meet again, but first Buck must go through a major transformation — from a spoiled house dog to a sled leader with heart.

It’s a character study, but in this case the character is a 140-pound dog in search of his natural self. It’s quite a clever narrative device found in this story that’s more than a century old.

Fortune and Glory

Buck and his canine cohorts take advantage of the latest in kibbles and bits and bytes; they’re CGI creations that build on the continuing advances in digital anthropomorphism. The end result here is just enough to create that sense of reality while still giving the dogs the playfulness of fantasy. To that end, director Chris Sanders, whose other directorial efforts include Disney’s Lilo & Stitch as well as the first How to Train Your Dragon, is a novel choice for helming this CGI-human hybrid. (By the way, the director, who hails from Colorado Springs, also served as a writer or story contributor on a remarkable run of 1990s Disney now-classics: Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King and Mulan.)

It takes a while for the meat of the story to be served; Buck has to go through his transition from playful family dog to leader of the pack. To listen to the call of his distant ancestors and to — as far as dogs go — find himself. It’s quite the existentialist canine tale.

After that happens, Buck is — by sheer luck, or fate, depending on your point of view — brought back into the circle of John Thornton. John’s out there, on the edge of nowhere, not in the name of fortune and glory, but to escape family tragedy back home. That back story is delivered in small servings, until the full scale of John’s painful situation can be appreciated.

That’s when John and Buck go on a journey — in honor of John’s son — to seek out places no one else has ever been. To venture off the map. It’s a quest for life-affirming exploration. And it’s one that holds an understated elegance in the discoveries made.

Mush!

As this adventure comes to a close — and, ultimately, the adventure of the new Twentieth Century Studios begins — there’s this hope for more literary classics to have their day, to be introduced to new generations and given the big screen treatment they deserve. Let’s get creative and dig into Greek mythology. Like Moana proved, Disney has the chops to surface great stories from distant cultures.

Hopefully The Call of the Wild will serve as an invitation for Disney to stop the relentless recycling of animated fare into live-action spectacle into stage musical into live TV event. Rinse and repeat. Again and again. They’ve already covered all of Sanders’ contributions from the ‘90s. It’s time to look forward by digging deeper into the past.

There are so many other great stories out there yet to be told, Uncle Walt.