THE CALL OF THE WILD is the first title released under Disney’s newly re-branded 20th Century Studios and while the distinction is noteworthy, the film itself might not be quite as historic. In an era where films like THE LION KING show that an entire photo-realistic movie can be animated, THE CALL OF THE WILD seems to beg the question: is it worth the effort? For now, that question perhaps remains unanswered.
To be fair, this is not a completely animated feature. Some of the shooting locations prove completely tangible and the human cast is obviously a grounding element. But it’s our four-legged hero, Buck, along with his animal kingdom companions who are complete fabrications in the computer. Is that a bad thing? Oddly enough, not as much as I feared but that doesn’t mean it is without problems.
Unlike THE LION KING, where every creature on screen was a complete facsimile, the computer-generated co-stars here share screen time with human actors, constantly reminding you what’s real and what’s illusion. To that end, animal scenes without humans OR human scenes without animals work the strongest. But after a few minutes, it’s easy to get over the contrast in the same way that it is possible in more obvious works like WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT.
But while the “uncanny valley” is likely a term that will come to mind, it is actually not the biggest detractor. That distinction comes to old-fashioned movie-making choices in writing. While I admittedly never read the Jack London novel upon which this work is based, it seems clear that filmmakers had a deep devotion to the original text as evidenced by a large number of scenes that seemed like they could have been reworked, shortened, or left on the cutting room floor altogether — including an overly-long introduction to getting Buck on his journey to answer the assumed call of the wild.
As far as the humans on screen, with the exception of Harrison Ford, they all fall to the background in support of Buck’s story. Omar Shy and Cara Gee are a notable exception leaving perhaps the strongest impression as a fun and interesting story deviation that itself could have been a whole movie. Dan Stevens leaves a mark of heavy imbalance with a performance that is exceedingly over-the-top and obsessively one-note in its villainy. I was half expecting him to be twisting his mustache after tying somebody to a railroad track by the final act. Meanwhile, Ford, who serves double-duty as the narrator, is the strongest human component but he doesn’t even factor into the story meaningfully until the back half of the feature; his performance perhaps one of the most endearing facets.
So while computer-generated characters might cause pause for some, the bigger issue is that the uneven pacing will leave more fickle viewers fidgeting at several points. Still, perhaps the strongest components IS the computer generated imagery with stunning landscapes and rich place-making. Every single visage, whether indoor or outdoor, is completely charming, welcoming, and absolutely stunning — especially the sights in Alaska. What may prove most prevalent here is an uptick in tourism to America’s 49th state.
In the end, I actually did fall in love with the story and even the overall execution has much for which to be proud. Where it seems all of the elements could have proven most strong was in a longer format such as a short series where the stories of the many characters could have been explored with more depth and less concern for overall pacing. To that end, as a movie, THE CALL OF THE WILD overstays its 1 hour and 50 minute run time by at least 20 minutes.
A great film to enjoy with the family, you might not be howling for more once it’s over.
THE CALL OF THE WILD is answered in theaters on February 21, 2020.