The Call of the Wild review – old-fashioned shaggy-dog story with bite

Disney’s adaptation of the classic Jack London adventure, starring Harrison Ford and a pack of CGI critters, is enjoyably corny

Beethoven meets Gladiator in this old-fashioned doggy adventure from Disney, which basically jumps out of the screen and starts licking your face. It’s digital in its effects but analogue in its heart.

A big, silly, sloppy, adorable pet St Bernard collie called Buck is forced to toughen up and find his inner survivor-warrior after he is effectively sold into slavery by evil dognappers in early-20th-century North America. He is put to work on a sled team in the freezing Klondike, where the gold rush has drawn thousands of desperate souls searching for riches. At first Buck has to be one of the dogs in the rear, behind a mean alpha canine called Spitz. And that joke about the view not changing unless you are lead dog originates from this very story. But Buck finds a soulmate and pal in a grizzled old prospector called Thornton – played by Harrison Ford – who has sadness in his heart and cares more for freedom than for gold. Ford also supplies the growly narration.

Screenwriter Michael Green has adapted the classic 1903 Jack London yarn. It has already had many feature adaptations – a silent in 1923 and then three talkies in 1935, 1972 and 1997, with Clark Gable, Charlton Heston and Rutger Hauer respectively playing the tough outdoorsman Thornton. The director here is Chris Sanders, who moves (partly) away from animation into the world of live action mixed with CGI animals from the uncanny valley.

Buck has been living a pampered life as the indulged pooch of a California judge (Bradley Whitford); but then criminals creep up at night and tempt Buck from the front porch where he had been banished by the judge after his latest disgrace. Their cruelties are all the more shocking because we we haven’t been able to help smiling at Buck’s naughtiness up until now.

At first, Buck finds himself put to work in a French-Canadian mail team owned by Perrault (Omar Sy) and his wife (Cara Gee), and the work is tough but not dishonourable. They are, after all, getting the letters through and doing a decent public service. But then Buck finds himself under the whip of an effete, contemptible and greedy adventurer called Hal (Dan Stevens) whose worst excesses are reined in a little by his wife, Mercedes (Karen Gillan).

Hal lusts for gold but has not the least idea of how to go about looking for it and becomes a vicious predator, worse than any dog. Then, as if to resolve these narrative extremes of good and bad, Buck’s flawed saviour Thornton enters the picture – lonely, ornery, boozy but with a heart of gold and a man who respects Buck.

Because Buck is emerging as a real hero, it’s his former indoor existence that now seems like miserable servitude, not his current situation. He has faced down the bully Spitz, endured snow and ice, shrugged off the scary bears and is evolving into a Nietzchean superdog, a demi-wolf leader of the pack, though with nobility. He is responding to the call of the wild, rather as Mowgli at the end of Disney’s The Jungle Book responds to the call of humanity and leaves his animal friends at the sound of a demure young woman singing. This is his destiny.

The result is a bit corny, a bit cheesy and you might feel self-conscious going, “Aww …” at creatures that are not real dogs but laptop fabrications. But it’s a robust and old-fashioned entertainment with some real storytelling bite.

• The Call of the Wild is released in the UK on 19 February, in Australia on 20 February and in the US on 21 February.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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