Friday, February 21, 2020

Fate of the Furriest: THE CALL OF THE WILD

Chris Sanders, animator and director behind such modern family classics as Lilo & Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon, now gives us a Great Illustrated Classics gloss on the middle school staple The Call of the Wild. The movie sands down Jack London’s brutal law of club and fang, retaining its episodic pull devolving a pampered house dog to a more instinctual creature of the wilderness, but making it bloodless and glancingly brutal. Here’s a rich man’s dog stolen away to the Yukon on a Gold Rush dogsled, battered in silhouette, confronted with stock villainy from alpha dogs, until one day he stand with his snout held high as the leader of the pack. By the end, he won’t need human masters at all. Sanders places computer animated dogs — rendered with more expressive realism than Favreau’s brain-dead Lion King Xerox, due to a hint of humanity in motion capture movements by Terry Notary and a dash of cartoon to lolling grins and twinkling eyes — next to human actors and gleaming fake landscapes. It’s all tweaked and heightened, Janusz Kaminski making a glowing Bob Ross backdrop of perfect forests and postcard ready snowcapped mountains, with a picture book appeal. When a dog is dramatically backlit by the Auroa Bourealis, or a mossy cabin is encrusted with the most verdant greens in an oasis right out of Tom Waits’ Buster Scruggs chapter, it’s nothing less than simple a-man-and-his-dog perfection. Here London’s story of canine instincts and the interiority of the animals is more or less intact for the novel’s first half until the second veers into screenplay tricks, obvious setups and payoffs, and a dash of sentimental gilding of its reconfigured, dramatically convenient conclusion. We get avalanches and dashes to destinations and low-key panning for gold as the dog shares the stage with beefed up roles for humans. There’s a wisp of a background love story for two Quebecois mail carriers (Omar Sy and Cara Gee), and a sniveling villain in a pompous rich prospector wannabe (Dan Stevens). And, best of all, throughout the film are the grizzled world-weary charms of a lovable Harrison Ford, whose ways with land and beast show him to be a true Jack London vision of benevolent masculinity. He’s grandfatherly and stolidly adventurous in all the right ways, and such a spry 77 that I’m not doubting a prospective fifth Indiana Jones as much as I was before. (Can you believe we thought he was nearly too old back when the fourth one came out, or that that one was twelve years ago?) What we’re left with is a movie of poses and personalities, pulled along by a classic story’s sturdy structure. It’s no great shakes, and no SparksNotes replacement, either, but it’s what, in earlier years, would’ve been a long-running kids’ matinee picture, a classy, square diversion with the right humble peaks of excitement and charm amidst a relaxed aged stars’ easy charisma and talented filmmakers’ perfectly phony visual splendor.

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