George Lucas was inspired to create Chewbacca, Han Solo’s furry copilot, when he saw his wife running errands with the family dog in the passenger seat of her car. It’s only apt, then, that after returning to see his iconic smuggler off in the recent Star Wars sequels, Harrison Ford brings it full circle with a late-career role that has him sleeping, eating, and shooting the rapids with a genuine pooch.
Well, “genuine.” Casting Ford in a new adaptation of Jack London’s canine classic was a no-brainer, but I was a little astonished to see, in the trailer, that his friend Buck would be rendered with computer-generated imagery. Is the idea that the grizzled actor, now 77, is real enough for both of them?
Jack London’s 1903 novel is a bracing tale of adventure in the far north, told from the perspective of a domestic dog who’s kidnapped from his comfy California home and subjugated to “the law of club and fang” in a brutal climate where dogsleds have to cross frozen lakes in temperatures dropping to -50º. The title refers to ancestral stirrings that awaken a latent brutality in Buck, ultimately calling so loudly that the dog takes down a full-grown moose just for the fuck of it.
This Call doesn’t summon that kind of swaggering vulpine virility, but nonetheless manages to round all the novel’s major bases and ultimately tracks a similar journey. It’s like a bracing blast of brass transposed to a more accessible key, and decorated with some extra bells and whistles.
This Buck isn’t just coddled, he’s spoiled: disciplined with nothing worse than a night on the porch after devouring an entire picnic spread. Despite that, it just takes a single club on the nose (depicted in discreet shadow) to get him in line up north, after which he ends up helping to pull a mail sled. “We’re not just carrying letters,” says Omar Sy as a much more gregarious version of the French-Canadian mailman Perrault, “we’re carrying lives.”
Maybe it would never have been reasonable to expect a real dog to play Buck in this movie, where the pup doesn’t just have to pull a heavy physical load but needs to bear an emotional load as well. He inspires his teammates and, much more dubiously, even impresses his wild rivals with his compassion: instead of fighting team leader Spitz to the death (where, in the book, the losing dog gets greedily devoured by his erstwhile colleagues), Buck essentially shames him into the woods before taking up his mantle at the head of the team.
In scenes like the one where Buck insists on the lead, director Chris Sanders (Lilo & Stitch) evinces a sure sense for visual storytelling and a close eye to the nuances of dogdom. The effects team also deserve credit for creating the epic exteriors, most of which are as virtual as Buck’s querulously raised ears. If the Cats debacle taught us one thing, it’s that the creation of convincing digital fur is no mean feat.
Credit also belongs to Ford, who deserves some kind of Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role to a CGI Dog. Maybe all those years with Chewbacca actually helped, but Ford is fantastically convincing carrying on a conversation with an entirely artificial creature. He looks so natural inviting the digital Buck into his tent that you wonder whether he went full method and forced Calista Flockhart to leave a void on their Tempur-Pedic during filming.
To say that some minor and unnecessary plot contrivances, as well as a bland John Powell score, are the worst things about this movie is high praise indeed for a project that could easily have gone very wrong. In the battle of Cats versus dogs, score one for Man’s Best Friend.