Grade: B/B-
Rated PG

Writer-slash-prospector Jack London penned his classic third novel, The Call of the Wild, in 1903, and the first of seven film adaptations and TV series was released way back in 1935. As a result, people think they know this dog story even if they haven’t read or seen it. What they typically know is that it’s a Yukon gold rush story involving a sled dog. Since the other well-known thing London wrote was “To Build a Fire,” in which a man freezes to death, they naturally assume The Call of the Wild is a sad movie.

And in places, it is. If you have family members who are especially sensitive to bad things happening to animals, this first feature from 20th Century since Disney acquired the movie division of Fox might not be for them.

Overall, though, The Call of the Wild isn’t another weepy Marley & Me or Hachi: A Dog’s Tale or Old Yeller. {Spoiler alert—skip to next paragraph] Dogs are mistreated and animals and humans die—but not Buck.

Buck is the dog whose epic/episodic journey we follow, from owner to owner and from the easy California life of a pampered pet to the harsh world of a sled dog learning how to survive in the wild. Buck is also regrettably CGI, and it takes some time to adjust to that and accept him as a character. From the moment we see him bounding around a judge’s mansion it’s painfully obvious that we’re not watching a real dog. There’s just something “off” about the movement or design. But you get used to it, and as director Chris Sanders told, the decision to go with CGI animals was pretty much made for them, because “you just could not safely put a real dog” into the dangerous situations the film depicts. That includes some pretty spectacular scenes.

Sanders also said, “In a situation where you’re using real dogs, you would have a number of dogs playing Buck. So you might have two, three, four or more dogs that are specialized in different behaviors standing in for Buck, which means you’d have a huge inconsistency with these characters. But the most important thing is that we wanted this character to act and to be a character; this is a fable about a dog. The human beings are characters that come and go in Buck’s life . . . .”

Sanders deliberately set out to make an adaptation of the entire novel, not just the last 30 pages as had been done before, so we get more than just the relationship between Buck and the man who turns out to be his last owner. We see people in California relating to him, and we see how he reacts when he is captured and sold to dog sled merchants, who ship him north to the gold fields. There Buck is clubbed and encounters snow for the first time, and his eventual owners—a male and female (Omar Sy, Cara Gee) who deliver mail via sled dog team—are as good to him as the sled-team driver in the 2006 Disney film Eight Below. As we watch Buck emerge as a rival then leader among dogs, we also watch him struggle under a new owner after new owner. And a wolf or wild dog who seems drawn to Buck reminds us of London’s naturalistic theme: that dogs, as a popular pet food company reminds us, are descended from wild animals and still have that wild instinct somewhere inside them. Will Buck respond to the “call of the wild,” or will he remain loyal to his owner?

If there are points in the film that have an Incredible Journey or Homeward Bound feel to them, perhaps it’s because those live-action Disney movies were favorites of Sanders. And CGI does enable the director to be able to film a thrilling avalanche scene that serves as Buck’s coming-of-age moment.

Fans of Harrison Ford may wish that Sanders had made a less comprehensive version of the book, because the actor’s screen time feels relatively brief—or maybe it’s just because his character is finally the human who “gets” Buck, someone this dog needed all along.

Entire family: No (unless you’re fine with the little ones watching Old Yeller)
Run time: 90 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: 20th Century Studios
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: C
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Amazon link
Rated PG for some violence, peril, thematic elements and mild language

Language: 1/10—I only caught a “damn” or two

Sex: 0/10—Nothing here

Violence: 4/10—(Spoiler alert) A human is shot, a dog is clubbed, dogs fight rather viciously, another kind of animal is killed, men have a fistfight, a character falls through the ice, and another character is caught in a fire

Adult situations: 2/10—There’s a bar scene and it’s implied that one character drinks too much

Takeaway: If Sanders was enamored with The Call of the Wild, can a remake of White Fang be far behind?