I was initially excited to hear “The Call of the Wild” was going to be remade yet again, with Harrison Ford; I have always been a fan of Jack London and read many of his novels when I was a child. Then I realized it was going to be a Disney movie.
For some reason, the brutal source material behind “The Call of the Wild” always seems to get the Disney treatment and always becomes a happy story about dogs. London’s survivalist tale of human cruelty and kindness, set in the bitter Yukon cold, is more like “The Revenant” - with dogs - than “Lassie.” London himself lived a sort of gothic tragedy. Born out of wedlock in a 19th-century slum, the young author panned unsuccessfully for gold in the arctic before skyrocketing to stardom and becoming a legend of American literature, taking his place next to greats like John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He became an alcoholic and died of a likely overdose at the age of 40, shortly after his Wolf Palace mansion burnt to the ground. All this rich, profoundly interesting source material and we get CGI dogs and Harrison Ford reading contrived, corny lines. And I mean corny.
In this sterilized retelling, we see Buck, a spoilt Saint Bernard mix from a California home, kidnapped and sold as a sled dog to work in the Alaskan wilderness. Along the way, he encounters good owners (such as Harrison Ford) and bad owners (such as Dan Stevens), but eventually answers the call of the wild and lives in the wilderness with a wolfpack.
I suppose I should put my gripes about the source material aside. Disney can’t exactly adapt ghastly source material; in the original “Little Mermaid,” the protagonist turns into sea foam and dies, and in the original “Call of the Wild,” almost everyone dies.
Well, did we at least get some charming songs sung by a Jamaican crab, or, as with more modern Disney films, a good message for kids? Vaguely. Buck learns that people can be good or bad masters, but that he should be his own master, I guess? The unfortunate truth is that Buck could learn his lesson only through experiencing trauma—learning “the law of club and fang,” from being beaten by bad masters — and from watching good masters die in the unforgiving wilderness. It’s not a lesson that you can really make PG, and there’s no other charm to recommend it even for children.
They should have made the bears sing a musical number.