Jack London's short novel (1903) proved a huge success, and has never gone out of print. Its publication coincided with the early years of the film industry, and it has been adapted to both big and small screen at least ten times. In 2020, Disney released a big-budget version, starring Harrison Ford, who has considerable experience playing opposite a furry co-star, and a lot of CGI.
The plot remains more-or-less the same. A large domestic canine gets dognapped and sold in the Klondike, where he has numerous adventures and slowly answers an ancestral call.
Harrison Ford works well as John Thornton, and the film's best moments occur when he and CGI Buck share the screen. Granted, I think he might have worked better with a real Buck or even a blend of real and animated dog. Nevertheless, Ford retains his ability to imbue some pretty cheesy dialogue with weight, while convincing us of his affection for a non-human being.
CGI Buck is an asset and a liability. The film contains scenes of dogs and other animals that could never have been made using just a real animal. However, a real animal would have lent Buck a little more canine credibility. In the novel, he's a strong and intelligent dog, somewhat anthropomorphized by the narrative. The movie gives us an Übermutt with near-human intelligence and perceptiveness. Buck even knows to take Thornton's whiskey away when he's had too much. Buck's dog team, meanwhile, consists of a motley assortment of pooches who would almost certainly have died quick deaths working as sled dogs in the Yukon.
In addition to the vaunted CGI animals, the movie also seamlessly blends practical and digital effects to create the far north of the late 1800s– all, apparently, without leaving California. Disney knows how to make a visually appealing movie.
They also know how to make a serviceable adaptation of a classic novel, even if this one is making far less money than they hoped. The degree of cheese served up by the humans and human behavior delivered by the dogs might serve Disney's intended audience, but it does much to undercut the frequently stark source material. The violence and sometimes-problematic ideological elements also have been toned down significantly. They've blunted the source material considerably, but The Call of the Wild works moderately well as a family film.
Of course, the film makes a number of changes. I've compiled a short list, using various sources online to boost decades-old memories of a book I read at thirteen. Expect some spoilers:
1. Disney significantly reduces the violence found in London's novel. The studio wants to protect its family marketing strategy, although even this version might be too intense in places for very young children.
2. The movie develops Buck's backstory. I understand how Buck's background can help develop his character, but I wasn’t thrilled with the form it took.
3. John Thornton does not appear until the second half of the novel. The movie gives him a couple of early encounters with Buck, some time before he teams up with the dog. Clearly, the filmmakers wanted to remind us that Harrison Ford was going to be in the movie.
4. In the novel, François and Perrault are likeable enough, but a lot rougher, especially with the dogs. In addition to softening their characters and giving them more comic moments, this movie makes changes to race and gender. The novel's Perrault is a dark-skinned Quebecois, while François is Métis. The film's Perrault is a Black man from Quebec– an unusual background for this time and place, but not unknown. Françoise is now a woman, though she retains an unspecified Native heritage. The pair appear to be some kind of couple.
5. In the movie, Thornton gets a tragic backstory, and he travels on his own. In the novel, he is one of three men, working together in the hope of making their fortunes. The changes make Thornton even more sympathetic, and allow us to focus on his bond with Buck.
6. The movie's conflict between Buck and his rival, Spitz, ends with Spitz losing and leaving. In the novel, Buck kills him. Of course he does. These changes are intended to appeal to kids, but they weaken the story considerably.
7. The involvement of Indigenous characters in the story's final events gets excised entirely. Instead, Thornton faces down against Hal, the jerk from the story's middle, who, in this version, vengefully tracks him down for a final confrontation. A more faithful adaptation of the novel would have to address London's racism, typical of his time and place. No easy solution exists that would fare well with a contemporary family audience, so Disney chooses to ignore the problem altogether.
Directed by Chris Sanders
Written by Michael Green from the novel by Jack London
Harrison Ford as John Thornton
A fortune in CGI as Buck the Dog and nearly every other animal
Omar Sy as Perrault
Cara Gee as Françoise
Dan Stevens as Hal
Bradley Whitford as Judge Miller
Jean Louisa Kelly as Katie Miller
Michael Horse as Edenshaw
Karen Gillan as Mercedes
Colin Woodell as Charles
Micah Fitzgerald as the Man in the Red Sweater
Heather McPhaul as Head Cook
Adam Fergus as James
Stephanie Czajkowski as Postmaster
Thomas Adoue Polk as Assistant Postmaster
Aria Lyric Leabu as Alice Miller
Salem Meade as Molly Miller
Brad Greenquist as Skagway Dog Seller
Scott MacDonald as Dawson Dog Seller
Wes Brown as Mountie