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Review: Human element beefs up dog tale ‘Call of the Wild’

  • COURTESY 20TH CENTURY FOX
                                Harrison Ford stars as John Thornton in “The Call of the Wild.”

    COURTESY 20TH CENTURY FOX

    Harrison Ford stars as John Thornton in “The Call of the Wild.”

“THE CALL OF THE WILD”

** 1/2

(PG, 1:40)

Much like our furry friends, movies about man’s best friend come in all shapes and sizes: lost dog movies, talking dog movies, military dog movies, reincarnated dog movies. “The Call of the Wild,” directed by Chris Sanders and based on the classic novella by Jack London, is what one might call a literary dog movie, even if there is technically no actual dog in it.

The star of “The Call of the Wild,” Buck, is a CGI creation. And it’s only through the technology that his dangerous and harrowing adventures in the Alaskan wilderness during the Gold Rush, as outlined by London, could be realistically brought to the big screen, for better or for worse.

Accomplished motion capture performer Terry Notary brings Buck’s movements to life, and it’s a truly skilled performance. But Buck’s digital nature is noticeable right away and you can never quite shake it throughout the film.

Fortunately Buck plays opposite several solid human actors who can hold up their end of the tale. After Buck is kidnapped from his family home and sold as a sled dog in Alaska, he luckily finds himself in the employ of Perrault (Omar Sy), who teaches Buck the way of the sled while delivering mail across the Yukon. Sy brings a warmth and joy that’s infectious and a necessary element in the otherwise terrifying story.

Writer Michael Green has streamlined “The Call of the Wild” into something simple and manageable for film, flattening characters into hero/villain caricatures and relying on cliche. A “spirit wolf” guides Buck’s way on the journey, and although he encounters saviors in the form of Perrault and the gruff John Thornton (Harrison Ford), who serves as the narrator, he also meets some truly nefarious humans. Dan Steven is especially over the top as the gold-hungry Hal, who drives Buck near death.

What you’re left with is a story that essentially asserts “dogs rule, humans drool,” which is hard to argue with. Buck is the hero of the story, saving even the cranky Thornton, played by Ford with his signature gravelly gravitas. The two lost souls, far from home, find each other for an epic Alaskan adventure. They’re not looking for gold, and what they ultimately find is more precious than that: a little bit of grace, and a closer connection to the wilderness and their roots.

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