Famed film director William Wellman’s 1935 film version of Jack London’s classic novel The Call of the Wild was about Clark Gable and Loretta Young. Eighty-five years later, director-animator Chris Sanders’ (How to Train Your Dragon) remake is about a beloved half-St. Bernard, half-Scottish terrier named Buck returns to the original source material. I don’t know which I like more. Clark and Loretta made movie magic. But Buck is lovable forever. If you think he’s perfection on four legs, he is. If you think he’s the most human dog since Lassie, Benji and Rin Tin Tin, he isn’t. Because Buck, you see, is computer-generated. Never mind. I guarantee you will love him anyway.
The setting is the 19th-century gold rush, a time when no able-bodied mutt was safe from the dognappers who lined their pockets with sales from the sudden demand for dog-sled teams to invade the Yukon. The novel was about the dangerous trials and punishing tribulations endured by the massive, clumsy but also brilliant Buck, stolen from his sunny California home, sold to work and slave in the wilderness delivering the mail to miners and prospectors in the snowy wastes of Alaska. Buck was vulnerable despite his size, because he was so full of love. He learned to cope with blizzards, wolves and cruel beatings from men and vicious attacks by other sled dogs, but never forgot his ability to show love, compassion, rage, fear and hope for finding a permanent home. A pack of sled dogs can only have one leader, and it’s not long before the other dogs make Buck their own.
THE CALL OF THE WILD ★★★
No love story here. This tribute to Jack London’s passion for nature is all about Buck’s emotions, and I’ve never seen a more faultless furry facsimile of canine humanism. His expressions change, his muscles move, his brows crease when he smells a warning signal, his smile broadens when he’s happy—facing one challenge after another until rescued at last by a friendly old codger played by an unrecognizable Harrison Ford. Tragedy eventually strikes, breaking their bond. But through every hurdle, Buck is nothing less than a miracle—in the quiet, affectionate scenes as well as the big action sequences in which he is played by a dog only a computer could create, always ready to extend a paw to make another friend. It’s the kind of technology I usually hate, but Buck is so appealing and his story is so entertaining that the movie won me over with a force that has left me astounded.
As the story progresses, Buck goes through several owners played by good actors in bit parts (Dan Stevens makes a specially heinous villain) before he finally discovers the meaning of love with an albino timber wolf and finds a home at last. This is kind of sad, because as much as I wanted Buck to find his home in the world, I wanted to take him home myself.