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Family Movie Review: The Call of the Wild (PG)

‘The Call of the Wild’ gets a family-friendly update, but the omnipresent CGI makes emotional connection difficult.

Kernel Rating: 2.5 out of 5

MPAA Rating: PG Length: 109 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 8+. Disney’s adaptation of the classic Jack London short story removes a number of now-inappropriate elements from the original text, including racist references to Native Americans, a number of murders, and some other violent details. There is still violence in the film, both with humans threatening dogs and with dogs attacking each other for dominance, but there is very little blood and most of the harm done to animals is implied, not explicitly shown, except for a drawn-out fight scene where dogs viciously fight each other, and a rabbit’s neck is snapped. Characters also drink alcohol, sometimes to excess; a few scenes are set in saloons/bars; there are some scary moments, like characters falling through the ice and almost being swept over waterfalls, and a fire breaking out in a cabin; and characters do shoot guns and brandish weapons. A few human characters die, including one in a fire and another from a gunshot.

By Roxana Hadadi

Disney’s live-adaptation streak continues with their spin on “The Call of the Wild,” the classic Jack London short story about a St. Bernard mix named Buck. Somewhat faithful, but with updates that smooth down the original text’s racist and violent tendencies, “The Call of the Wild” will certainly please young viewers who have grown up on Disney’s anthropomorphized animals. But omnipresent CGI—including for Buck—puts up somewhat of an emotional wall between the audience and the visuals of “The Call of the Wild.”

TheCallOfTheWild1 ChesapeakeFamilyMovieReviewThe film, which is narrated by Harrison Ford’s character, a grieving outsdoorman named John Thornton, traces Buck’s life through various locations and masters. First are his early years, when he’s a spoiled pet who ends up eventually starved, mistreated, and threatened with the club if he misbehaves. Weak, lacking in confidence, and uncoordinated, Buck ends up being bought by a delivery team with Royal Mail Canada, Perrault (Omar Sy) and Francoise (Cara Gee), who add Buck to their team of sled dogs. While part of the team, Buck faces off against the alpha Spitz, a cruel husky who maintains power through fear. And finally, Buck ends up past the Yukon Ranges at John’s side, where dog and man heal each other.

“The Call of the Wild” is almost entirely Buck’s story, and his journey from underdog to pack leader is easy to follow for young viewers. Of course, because Buck is CGI, he often acts not like a real dog but more like a Disney version of a dog, with goofy mannerisms, surprised facial expressions, and emotional knowledge that is almost humanlike, like when he realizes that John is grieving for his lost son and when he tries to get John to stop drinking. That’s also a change from London’s text, in which Buck doesn’t necessarily become more confident because of human guidance but because of his increasing wildness in the undeveloped landscape. Some of that is present here, like when Buck stands up to a grizzly bear or when he runs with wolves, but the movie shifts some of the thematic impact of this story away from the lure of the wilderness.

And then there’s the CGI issue: Buck never really looks like a real dog, in particular because of the overly expressionistic way that his face has been designed, and the various levels of CGI sometimes look incredibly awkward together. In one scene, Buck and a wolf embrace, rubbing their fur against each other, and the scene is unbelievably strange to look at—neither animal looks real, and they don’t look real when interacting with each other, and the emotional impact of that scene is lost. The landscape is sometimes stunning, such as when Buck and John are navigating a canoe through a crystal-clear river dotted with fish and sparkling gold, but everything also often looks like a computer screensaver.

Some elements may be a little too intense for very young viewers, in particular the constant threat of abuse toward the animals and the bloodthirsty motivations of the villain played by Dan Stevens, and Buck never seems quite real. Nevertheless, “The Call of the Wild” moves so briskly that opportunities for boredom are rare, and kids around me at the press screening—all dog fans—were mostly enthralled.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater. 

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