‘The Call of the Wild’: CGI Dog Finds a Master in Harrison Ford

Man’s best friend fights to forge his own path in “The Call of the Wild,” the latest adaptation of Jack London’s 1903 novel of the same name. Harrison Ford may have top billing, but a CGI dog is the star in this action adventure film, with actor and stunt coordinator Terry Notary standing in for the larger-than-life canine who answers to Buck.

Set in roughly the same time period in which the novel was released, “The Call of the Wild’ begins in Santa Clara, California, where Buck lives a charmed life as the pampered pet of the local judge (Bradley Whitford) and his family, jumping on beds and chasing rabbits. After he demolishes a feast that has been prepared for a big family event, the judge decides to show him a bit of tough love by making him sleep on the porch. Unfortunately, he doesn’t realize that the pup has caught the attention of a local scoundrel, who uses the opportunity to steal him away in the middle of the night and sell him to those looking for dogs to sell in Alaska. It’s difficult to watch as Buck as mistreated, but the whole ordeal pushes him to find his inner strength.

Once in Alaska, Buck catches the attention of John Thorton (Ford), a lonely prospector who we come to learn is dealing with grief from the loss of his son, a tragedy that drove him and his wife apart. But before he can go off with John, Buck is purchased by a French-Canadian mail carrier, Perrault (Omar Sy), who in a departure from previous adaptations, is a man of color and his partner, Françoise (Cara Gee), is a woman. Perrault, however, proves to be softer than Françoise, who makes Buck and the other dogs who pull their sled sleep out in the snow. Still, he saves her life after she falls through ice, one of many thrilling sequences that transpire as Buck grows and learns to listen to his own instincts. But the most tense scene involves him going up against Spitz, the leader of the pack who is angry about Buck moving in on his territory. 

After circumstances lead Perrault and Françoise to part with their dogs, Buck ends up with a trio of city folk, Hal (Dan Stevens), Mercedes (Karen Gillan) and Charles (Colin Woodell). These people provide some comic relief for a brief moment before it becomes apparent that their foolishness in their quest for gold could get Buck, the other dogs, and possibly themselves killed. Fortunately, John is able to rescue Buck before he’s in any real danger. Actually, it can be argued that it is Buck who rescues his two-legged friend, as he actively prevents John from drinking himself to death, and his master almost becomes a new man, and the pair are soon off to the Yukon to fulfill a dream John once shared with his late son. 

Hal, meanwhile, is still bitter over John’s earlier interference, and somehow rationalizes that he and Buck are responsible for his miseries. This is a different sort of role for Stevens, and while he doesn’t exactly nail it, he makes some interesting choices. 

As Buck is a digital creation, “The Call of the Wild” doesn’t achieve quite the same pathos that a film that uses real dogs, such as the recent Disney Plus feature “Togo,” would. Still, the canine hero has a fully developed arc and an emotional journey that packs a punch, and one would have to be made of stone not to get the feels watching this.

The Call of the Wild” opens Feb. 21 in theaters nationwide.