A wolf howls from far away. Buck looks up, puzzled but interested. It's his first experience at hearing the call of the wild. Buck is a dog, newly arrived in the Yukon.
The movie is narrated by Harrison Ford who explains the great Alaskan Gold Rush of 1897 that created a demand for dogs big and strong enough to pull sleds. So Buck is kidnapped from his California home and sold to be a sled dog. This is the ninth movie version of the Jack London story. Does it work?
I almost didn't see it as I didn't want to watch a computer generated dog! I didn't think I would believe it. So I am glad to say that I was wrong. I basically forgot I wasn't watching a real dog. So I'm happy I saw it, especially as it was my last movie before the theaters closed.
Of course, the real star is Harrison Ford, even though we are half way through the movie before he and Buck become friends. The movie follows the broad outline of the novel with some changes. Jack London took part in the Yukon Gold Rush. There is an excellent article in the November 2019 Smithsonian Magazine detailing his adventures and just how harsh and brutal conditions were. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/gold-fever-deadly-cold-and-amazing-true-adventures-jack-london-wild-180973316/
It stays family friendly, leaving out most of the cruelty and violence in favor of an interesting story. The movie begins with Buck's life in California where he is shown as a kind of spoiled brat, high energy, friendly and endlessly destructive. As I recall, the novel simply says he was the family pet. This version suggests he needs a bigger world and that landing in the Yukon ends up being the best place for him. London's theme is more that the call of the wild is in all of us. Buck is pulled towards a more primitive state. Jim Thornton, the man who befriends him is also one who has heard the call of the wild in himself.
The movie changes Thornton's character and makes him older, and sadder. He is in the Yukon because he of a personal tragedy. His friendship with Buck is going to be his salvation. This is good, but not really the story London wrote. However, it works here and Harrison Ford is simply superb.
I liked the other changes as well. Buck needs to learn to work as part of a sled dog team. He is fortunate to be bought by a French mail delivery man. We see how difficult and dangerous mail delivery was, demanding travels over hundreds of miles to visit camps and towns. Perrault sees the potential in Buck and trains him until he becomes a lead dog. In the novel, Perrault and Francois have no real personalities and their French accents are comic relief. Perrault says, "Sacre dam! Dat one dam bully dog!" In this version, Perrault is played by Omar Sy with almost no accent and with a lot of personality. His partner is Francoise, played by Cara Gee who has previously won Best Actress at the American Indian Film Festival. She too has personality as a hard headed businesswoman who slowly comes to appreciate Buck after he saves her life. The movie very wisely made Francoise the only woman of importance and she is intelligent and admirable.
I was sorry when their part in the movie ended and Buck was sold to new owners.
The new owners are three greenhorns who don't belong there. They don't know what they are doing but are expecting to easily find a fortune in gold and meantime they are casually ignorant and cruel to the dogs. In the novel, one of the three is a woman. She is the only woman in the story and London portrays her as silly fool. For this movie, the greenhorn woman is given one wonderful visual image. She appears in a beautiful pink dress and hat looking like she's on her way to a party, dressed utterly wrong for a venture into the unforgiving wilderness. That image says it all and no words are needed. These three should never have come to the Yukon.
Hal, the leader of the three, played by Dan Stevens is built up as real villain who quickly comes to hate Thornton who takes Buck away from him. This will be important.
Meantime, we watch Thornton and Buck become friends at the same time as Buck meets the wolf pack. He slowly becomes part of them. They are the call of the wild. But he also loves Thornton and does not want to leave him. So he is torn, spending time with his new wild friends and return to his old friend, his last link to his human world.
I won't say how the story ends. I enjoyed it. I recommend it.
Reviewed by: Marian Powell
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