Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Call of the Wild '20

Boy, did this particular movie get caught up in the who deal of Disney acquiring Twentieth Century Fox - it seemed like it got shuffled around the schedule, then a bunch of trailers popped up, the online ads seemed to imply it was being brought under the Disney label, and then when it finally shows up, the title card says "Twentieth Century Pictures". It's fun trivia that a 1935 version of The Call of the Wild was apparently the last film from the original Twentieth Century Pictures before it merged with Fox, but now it just seems strange, a familiar logo that says the wrong thing referencing a period of time twenty years in the past.

Weird, but still not as strange as those CGI dogs, which make me feel like studios don't know how to make this movie anymore. There's a tactility to this sort of adventure that obvious effects have a hard time meshing with, and trying to make the animals too expressive seems to run counter to the way that part of the reason we show kids these stories is to teach that the wild is not like human society

The Call of the Wild '20

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 February 2020 in AMC Boston Common #14 (first-run, Dolby Cinema DCP)

It's a good thing that the preview for the latest adaptation of The Call of the Wild played before seemingly every movie to hit theaters in the last couple of months, if only to give potential viewers a head start on wrestling with the conflicting reactions the film seems designed to create: It's a handsome, family-oriented adventure film that feels almost like a throwback except for one modern element - the animal characters being realized with digital animation - that can't help but stick out like a sore thumb. So much of the film works, but there's a big piece smack in the middle that one's brain rejects.

That would be Buck, a big mixed-breed dog that, when he's introduced in San Francisco, is the spoiled pet of an influential judge (Bradley Whitford) and his wife (Jean Louisa Kelly). A night banished to the porch for misbehavior makes him easy prey for those looking to cash in on the need for sled dogs in Alaska. There he is purchased by Perrault (Omary Sy) and Fran├žoise (Cara Gee), a couple delivering mail between Skagway and Dawson, though Buck's soft-hearted nature puts him in conflict with Spitz, the husky that leads the sled team. Nothing lasts forever, though, and eventually Buck will have other masters - Hal (Dan Stevens), who has invested enough in his quest for gold to become desperate, and John Thornton (Harrison Ford), a man looking to be alone on the edge of the world.

They're a central element in most of the film, but I can't say I ever managed to completely accept the digital dogs, though I am not one to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to digital effects. It's not that the effects work is badly done at all - for completely-digital versions of creatures people see regularly, the dogs and other animals in this movie look pretty good when they are in action doing dog-like things. And that's good - for many sequences in this movie, shooting it with actual dogs would involve them being put in danger or otherwise abused, so good effects work is crucial. It's the too-human expressions on Buck's face and bits of exaggerated body language courtesy of motion-capture performer Terry Notary that cause trouble; for all that a viewer can now "read" Buck better, it comes with a nagging thought in the back of one's head that dogs don't do that. On top of that, Buck being animated probably undercuts what the story is Doing: If, as in Jack London's original novel, the story is about Buck's animal nature asserting itself - and the narration underlines that as a theme - it's counterproductive for Buck to communicate like a human. He needs to be a dog, whether pet, working animal, or something near-feral, and at no point does he come across as one.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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