Call of the Wild is a fine film that fits into more of the era when Disney was making films such as 2005’s The Country Bears. It mixes both live-action and CGI animals, and while in the beginning it pulled me out of the first few minutes, near the second act or so, I began to realize the filmmaker’s intent.
Director Chris Sanders, whose credits include Lilo & Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon, used CGI for the main protagonist of the film, Buck. Buck is a 140-pound St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix whose enormous size is often the basis of several jokes. Whenever Buck reacts or emotes to something that happens to him, often it mimics the facial expressions of a human being. From anger and confusion to elation and pity, Buck goes through a range of emotions in this hour and a half tale. Knowing that Buck is just a CGI construction does ruin some of the scenes he’s in; however, Buck’s interactions with his owners keep him from not feeling too out of place. It’s a tricky balance that Sanders tries to pull off throughout each scene, but its one that didn’t elicit the type of response I was preparing to hear from the audience behind me.
In fact, the audience behind me seemed endeared by Buck’s noble spirit and personality. Much of that has to do with the human performances, most notably Omar Sy as Perrault. Sy’s enthusiasm is infectious and his admiration for the 140-pound Buck is perhaps the highlight of the entire film. Unfortunately, Sy only shows up for the first half, and when he goes, so does the film’s focus.
A major issue of the second half is that it doesn’t go where it wants to go. Like the characters who drift from area to area hoping to find gold, the film drifts from scene to scene, hoping the audience remains on board with Buck and his arc from domesticated mutt to brave leader. Even the addition of Harrison Ford as John Thornton couldn’t bring the film back to the highs of the first half. Thornton’s backstory involving his son is mentioned here and there, but there’s never any reasoning for why I should care for him. And although Thornton sees Buck as a trusted fellow worthy to embark on an adventure with to find gold, the bond between the two never seems as poignant as the bond that Buck had with Perrault.
Call of the Wild tries to do a lot in its short runtime, but never quite hits the landing. And though the CGI dog could pull some audiences out when it starts, it’s not too distracting, thankfully. Still, the unfocused plot and lack of development from its second-half makes Call of the Wild a fine matinee.
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