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'The Call of the Wild': Mush to the Theater
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
06:46PM / Thursday, February 27, 2020
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In the closing credits of director Chris Sanders's presentation of Jack London's "The Call of the Wild," a wholesome tale of the courage, honor and loving devotion between man and dog that hopefully won't be lost on our adolescent population, there is a curiously inherent contradiction.
 
The lists of folks who toiled in the visual effects, special effects, art, animation and makeup departments to make this rousing adventure yarn in the Yukon look so stunningly real go on and on, affirming that the sorcery of re-creating nature sure takes a lot of manpower.
 
Now, I don't want to be like Sid, the suitor/engineer who ruined every movie for my big sister by pretentiously attempting to explain how everything was done. But then only older moviegoers are apt to be astonished by the virtually seamless process. Conversely, Tyler and Chloe, born to the computer world, would be much more surprised if they learned that canine protagonist Buck, the half-St. Bernard, half-Scottish shepherd mix, was not a 100 percent pedigree, CGI creation.
 
Thus is added a new wrinkle to the whole idea of suspension of disbelief, dictating that we forget, at least for the length of the movie, that Harrison Ford as John Thornton, the humanistic mountain man, has formed an alliance with a big, furry set of well-placed keystrokes. Still, as absorbed as we become in the screenplay Michael Green adapted from London's classic novel, our amazement at the technological feat shares celebrity with the story itself.
 
That said, "The Call of the Wild," arguably penned in reaction to the encroaching artificiality of things and modes resulting from the Industrial Revolution is, in its goodness, simplicity and virtuous paean to the rules of nature, a needed breath of fresh air in today's cynical climate. So, get your healthy serving of self-determination while the getting is good.
 
Similar in its basic theme to Anna Sewell's "Black Beauty," about a horse's fate at the alternately compassionate and cruel hands of numerous owners, our dog Buck starts out on his odyssey as the ungainly pet of a judge and his family in the politely domesticated circumstances of Santa Clara, Calif., circa the Gilded Age. But when Buck inhales an entire buffet of food the judge was planning to serve at a much-anticipated shindig, something's gotta give.
 
And so, through a series of happenstances coinciding with the Klondike Gold Rush, where sled dogs are in high demand, Buck first finds himself among the pack of assorted mongrels who pull the mail sled for Omar Sy's good-natured Perrault and his equally beneficent wife, Françoise, portrayed by Cara Gee. It's there that he learns the ropes, or more specifically, the re dog-sledding, and forms his first full, symbiotic relationship with a human, albeit short-lived.
 
Push comes to shove. A troika of dastardly dandies acquire Buck, thinking he might pull them to riches. Skullduggery ensues. But following a series of life-threatening, action-filled events over snow-covered hill and dale, John Thornton saves and nurses Buck back to health, resulting in the comradeship that articulates the essence and ethos of the saga.
 
But the soon devoted pals aren't out of the woods yet. Hal (Dan Stevens), one of the no-goodniks who survived the catastrophe he previously caused at an unstable frozen lake, has been in hot pursuit, certain that Thornton and Buck know where a fortune in gold awaits discovery.
 
The ruthless brute, who couldn't possibly understand that the relationship between dog and man might have any other purpose, epitomizes one of the story's two ferocious forces, the other being the sheer, overpowering domination by Mother Nature the title identifies.
 
In Buck's case the call comes in the form of a white, female timber wolf who regularly draws him into the wild for fun and frolic, away from the bachelor pad/cabin he shares in sentimentally humorous, "Odd Couple" style with his human buddy. Thornton is hip to the rendezvous, but as the altruist extraordinaire is planning to return to civilization, he signals that Buck's dual citizenship will soon have to be resolved, and that it's his choice and his choice alone.
 
After Muffin, my curmudgeonly but lovable Yorkie, left this mortal world some years ago, I thought that maybe after a reasonable period of grieving we'd get another dog. Of course, this time we'd have the cur trained, offer very little table food and, so we could vacation with reckless abandon, he'd be boarded at a kennel. But time passed and, though on rare occasion at 11 p.m. habit erroneously says it's time to walk Muffin, the elimination of that duty is now guiltily but gratefully enjoyed. I don't think I'll get another dog. 
 
Then again, at certain times, like when seeing a movie that so beautifully extolls the bond between Homo sapiens and man's best friend, I hear my own "Call of the Wild."
 
"The Call of the Wild," rated PG, is a Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release directed by Chris Sanders and stars Harrison Ford, Omar Sy and Cara Gee. Running time: 100 minutes
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