The veneer of civilisation is fragile, so how easy is it to revert to a state of primitivism? The Call of the Wild, a short adventure novel written by secret literary anarchist, Jack London, published in 1903, was an instant hit about a pampered dog named Buck who, in symbolising a reaction against industrialisation, found his destiny by returning to nature, cementing London’s writing reputation and its first adaptation as a silent film in 1923.
Several retellings later, its appeal endures in this family-friendly cinematic version offering a new lease of life for the old classic. The role of outdoorsman, John Thornton, often plucked from a pool of rugged Hollywood leading men, is played by a bearded and wearied, grizzle-haired Harrison Ford, who sleepily narrates the story in quieter moments alongside performance-capture technology and a CGI-enhanced version of the powerful 140-pound pooch who is anthropomorphised and given human traits, although with cartoonish emotional resonance at times, which detracts from the thematic strengths of the source material.
Buck is a sprightly Saint Bernard mix with an inborn energy surplus, whose owner demands a more well-trained pet in his stately mansion. But he’s rebellious, a wild dog at heart, which hints at something larger and just when you think it, the boom is lowered. The impending cataclysm is cruel and violent with Buck dognapped from his life of luxury and sold on the black market where his new life begins as a sled dog, and adapting to harsh environments by rediscovering dormant animal instincts, as he slogs through the majestic but unforgiving Canadian Yukon. Life is blatantly bestial at its core and Buck must endure by proving himself beside the brutality of freight haulers, stampeders and other sled dogs. When Thornton meets Buck upon his travels, he wins the canine’s love and loyalty through kindness and respect when both are in a struggle for existence from ever-present conflicts that follow both man and animal in the confrontation of wilderness.
There’s hardly a moment that animation director, Chris Sanders, doesn’t orchestrate for our observance. Extensive CGI sees every composed image in perfect place to envelop the viewer – jagged cliff faces, mountain peaks, virgin snowscapes, glaciered alpine lakes, the northern lights softly aglow – all render a weird and wintery Arctic atmosphere. But too much emphasis on motion-capture technology sees Sanders lose the story’s important central theme – strip the world of modern modernity and we tumble back into something fierce, decivilised, unhuman. Nothing but illusions, all. Nothing, but the call. As with Hollywood animation, I’m sure it was a lot of work, but it seemed lazy to bypass this. It’s a fine balance translating sophisticated themes into a kids’ movie. Still, I think I’ll go watch Togo.
The Call of the Wild is in cinemas February 20, 2020. Togo is available on Disney+