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The Call of the Wild is a rousing adventure 

Chris Sanders (Lilo & Stitch, How to Train Your Dragon, The Croods) directs screenwriter Michael Green's adaptation of Jack London's classic novel about Buck, a St. Bernard and Scotch shepherd mix that's stolen and sent north to Canada's Klondike during the gold rush, where he's forced to become a sled dog. After many adventures and terrible masters, Buck eventually teams up with John Thornton (Harrison Ford), to whom he develops a fierce loyalty. (100 min.)

click to enlarge BUCK! Jack London's story of an unruly St. Bernard and Scotch shepherd mix, who's dognapped from his owner and goes on a grand adventure during the Klondike gold rush, has some off-putting CGI but is still a compelling family film. - PHOTO COURTESY OF TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
  • Photo Courtesy Of Twentieth Century Fox
  • BUCK! Jack London's story of an unruly St. Bernard and Scotch shepherd mix, who's dognapped from his owner and goes on a grand adventure during the Klondike gold rush, has some off-putting CGI but is still a compelling family film.

Glen I loved this book as a kid. Buck's adventure is grand and teaches important lessons of fairness and bravery but also about the cold reality of the natural world, dog pack (and human) pecking order, and the ethical treatment of animals. It's all here in this new attempt to bring London's 1903 dog's-eye-view novel to life in film, first attempted in the 1923 silent film of the same name, and attempted again in 1935, 1972, 1976, 1996, and 2009. If you can get past the jarring CGI of this new version, with its oddly anthropomorphized dog facial expressions and less-than-realistic looking animals, the core of what makes the story compelling is still there. This is a story and film squarely aimed at the 8- to 12-year-old crowd, who I'm guessing won't be bothered by the CGI or anthropomorphization in the least. They'll love Buck's humanlike personality writ across his lovable face, not to mention his clumsy shenanigans. He's a dog with a mind of his own. If you're not familiar with the story, some—but not all—of the book's elements are here: his dognapping, harsh treatment, series of masters, and eventual relationship with Thornton, who in the film version is a man hiding in the Klondike from of the tragic memory of his son's death and resulting failed marriage. The character of Hal (Dan Stevens), a greenhorn prospector who badly mistreats Buck and his other sled dogs, gets expanded into a revenge side plot. The book is still superior to any of the film versions I've seen, including this one, but it's a very engrossing family film with an effective performance from Ford.

Anna The CGI is definitely distracting, but after a few minutes I got used to it enough to enjoy the film. The Call of the Wild is certainly a beloved book from my childhood, so I went into the theater with cautious excitement. All the poor reviews I had read were focused on the CGI, so I figured if I could get over that, there might be enough in Buck's wild adventure to redeem the problematic graphics. While the age demographic for this film falls far outside of my years on earth, I was able to still enjoy Buck's journey. I laughed at his antics and felt sentimental through his struggles. Narration comes from Thornton, as we watch Buck go from a Southern judge's pet who dines on thieved turkey legs, to dognapping victim, to postal service sled dog alongside Frenchman Perrault (Omar Sy), to sled dog of the evil Hal, and then his journey to Thornton. With Perrault, Buck not only learns to be a teammate but a leader and a friend. Alpha dog Spitz is untrusting and jealous of the new member, and when it finally comes to blows between the two dogs, Buck's life and position, and the lives of the sled team, are all suddenly at stake. Even knowing what happens, I was still glued to the screen as the two battled it out to be top dog. It's thrilling but not scary. I think even fairly young kids would be OK in this one. Buck is just one of those dogs that's impossible not to love, even when he's getting himself into trouble.

Glen Witnessing how Buck's various owners treat him is the story's most important lesson. Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford) is disappointed by Buck's unruly behavior but never resorts to punishment worse than making Buck sleep outside. When he's taken north to be sold into servitude, he's taught to obey with the end of a club. Thankfully, Perrault buys him and decides to give Buck a chance at learning to pull a sled, despite his partner Françoise's (Cara Gee) lack of faith in the lumbering dog. When Buck gets distracted by a rabbit and pulls the team off the trail and down a slope, Perrault exhibits patience and trust. Buck turns out to be worth the trouble and soon earns Françoise's trust and respect as well. How Hal ends up with the team doesn't quite line up with the book version, but Thornton's intervention on Buck's behalf leads Buck to become his dog. Unlike Buck's previous "masters," Thornton isn't interested in having the dog do his bidding. Buck can come and go; Thornton just tells him to be home by dark. The book's title comes from Buck's increasing interaction with a local timber wolf pack, and how he's called back to his ancestral behaviors, but not before proving himself a faithful companion to Thornton. As I noted, the film strays a bit from the book's storyline and compresses a lot of the book's action to fit the 100-minute runtime, but this is still a wonderful family film and absolutely worth a trip to the theater, especially if you're a dog lover—even when they're constructed solely of ones and zeroes.

Anna The director said he not only decided on full CGI for the dogs so that they could have very expressive facial features, but also so that real dogs would not be hurt or scared by the harrowing action scenes. For that, I applaud him. Nothing is quite as heartbreaking as hearing a beloved film featuring animals was actually terrible and abusive to their stars (I'm looking at you, The Adventures of Milo and Otis). Harrison Ford is always good, and he isn't just phoning it in here—his John is wounded and vulnerable. Bringing Buck into his life gives him motivation to keep going, keep learning, and keep appreciating the beauty around him. Buck also doesn't appreciate John's drinking and happily hides his whiskey whenever he gets the chance. Their back and forth is pretty darn adorable. Bad guy Hal makes for a great villain; his steely blue eyes and dastardly mustache, along with some pretty great costuming, turn him into a wholly unlikeable jerk. I was praying for his comeuppance from the very first time I saw him. He's unlikeable but not outright scary—again probably safe for most children. I wish I had an 11-year-old niece or nephew who I could take to this flick and just watch the joy in their eyes as Buck becomes his true self. I'll tell you one thing—I will be heading to Phoenix Books to pick up a copy of this book to pass on to the little ones in my life when they get to the right age. Distracting CGI aside, this was a sweet retelling of the classic tale, one I encourage you to see, especially if you have kids the right age. Δ

Split Screen is written by Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and his wife, Anna. Comment at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

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