Somewhere in heaven the ghost of Jack London is repeatedly slamming his fist into a refrigerator and screaming “you worthless motherfuckers…I want to come down to earth, surreptitiously occupy the body of somebody like Dwayne Johnson and pound your worthless asses into mush!”
The recipients would be those principally responsible for The Call of the Wild (20th Century Studios, 2.21) — director Chris Sanders, producer Erwin Stoff, screenwriter Michael Green and costar Harrison Ford, who plays Alaskan lonely guy and struggling alcoholic John Thornton (whom Clark Gable portrayed in William Wellman’s 1935 version).
If we lived in a fair and just universe London’s wish would be granted by the same heavenly manager who allowed Billy Bigelow to return to earth in order to help his unhappy daughter. For The Call of the Wild is swill — a live-action CG cartoon aimed at idiots, kids, families and simpletons of all ages.
Does anyone remember Jean Jacques Annaud‘s The Bear (’88)? A naturalistic coming-of-age survival saga starring real bears and two or three supporting humans? It too was aimed at the family trade and but didn’t pander or dumb itself down. By any yardstick The Bear was intelligent, moving, believable, rewarding. And all the animals were real! I loved it when I caught an all-media screening 32 years ago, and I’m actually planning on seeing it again this week. Mainly because a good film is a good film and it’s been too long. But also because The Bear was everything that The Call of The Wild isn’t, and I want to flush the latter out of my system.
God, I hate movies about animals with great big hearts and loads of loyalty and courage, but at the same time don’t respect the natural way of things…films that insist on serving fast food and snow cones instead of wholesome Greek yogurt and steamed green beans or, you know, stuff worth eating.
This is a family flick with, I’ll admit, a fair amount of synthetic warmth and personality, and I realize that it might “get” some people if their standards are low enough. But it’s almost entirely about fake bullshit, fake bullshit and — just to break up the monotony — fake bullshit. It’s primitive candy corn — a confection that worships trite formulaic contrivances, and in fact smears them all over your face like street mud. Another way of putting it is that The Call of the Wild that has so little respect for you, the viewer, and is so determined to treat you like a Disneyland-attending moron that it knocks you down like a big playful dog, raises its hind leg and pisses right into your face.
I hate movies like this, I hate the generic family-flick mindset and I hate Sanders, who’s known for co-writing and directing Disney’s Lilo & Stitch (’02) and DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon (’10).
Wild is so mind-numbingly stupid that it presents two sharply different versions of Buck, the St. Bernard-Scotch collie mix who was created by London for his 1903 novel, within the first 30 to 40 minutes. When we first meet Buck, the tolerated pet of a family living in a large Victorian home in Santa Clara, he’s a lumbering oaf without a shred of smarts, discipline or physical coordination. He knocks things over, creates a mess, drives his owner (Bradley Whitford) to despair. But soon after being kidnapped and sent to Alaska to work as a sled dog, Buck suddenly morphs into a canine superhero — wise, super-strong, courageous, motivated. He even becomes Thornton’s alcoholics anonymous counselor, encouraging him to pour the whiskey into the snow.’
Dan Stevens portrays one of the most profoundly irritating one-note villains of all time — only a sadist would impose such a dreadful character upon an audience. Omar Sy plays Perrault, a kindly mail carrier who’s so cool he doesn’t need to wear much more than a heavy-knit sweater, a scarf and a headcap in subzero conditions (and half the time he doesn’t even wear the cap because Sanders wants us to appreciate Sy’s close-cropped, tennis-ball haircut). Cara Gee is okay as Françoise, Perrault’s mail-carrying partner, but I didn’t believe they were “a couple”. Not in late 19th Century Alaska, they weren’t.
Saying it again for good measure — forget The Call of the Wild and see The Bear.