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As lovable as an old hound

Harrison Ford in Call of the Wild (20th Century Fox via AP)


As lovable as an old hound

The Call of the Wild is a fine family film, but it lacks the bite of Jack London’s novel

As I walked out of the latest adaptation of The Call of the Wild, I wondered if I was misremembering Jack London’s classic novel, a favorite from my childhood. Maybe my 11-year-old heart had only raced to the poetic savagery because my life had been so comfortable and safe by comparison. As an adult, maybe I’d look back and find the first wide-eyed glimpse London had given me into the brutal reality of the natural world was really just a ho-hum affair. Maybe it had seemed astonishing because my childish mind had never encountered fictional animals behaving as anything other than cuddly Disney sidekicks.

A quick skim through a well-worn copy now living on my daughter’s bookshelf assures me that’s not the case. London’s novel is as muscular as ever. More so, really, because so few stories today accept the harshness of fallen creation on its own terms. So think of the new movie more as the “The Call of the Mild”—all-ages entertainment very much in keeping with a PG rating.

London’s general beats are still there. Pampered half–St. Bernard, half–Scotch collie Buck is kidnapped from Judge Miller’s sun-drenched ranch in the Santa Clara Valley and shipped off for frozen adventure in the Yukon. He’s still beaten into submission by the man in the red sweater. Well, here he’s more threatened than beaten, but he still learns the law of club and fang. He just does it in the guise of one of those much sweeter Disney dogs. 

Rather than rise to the front of the sled-dog pack by tapping into his innate animal ruthlessness, this Buck becomes top dog by being a nice guy. He sympathetically releases a rabbit rather than devouring it. And not only does he not steal his pack-mate’s fish dinner, he shares his own. 

If it sounds like I’m saying this is a bad thing, it’s not necessarily. Harrison Ford turns in a wonderfully gruff but tender performance as prospector John Thornton, the man Buck truly loves. And the CGI canines still capture a mystery second only to the love of a man for a maid: the love of a dog for his master.  

This is a kinder, gentler, and often more fantastical introduction to the story, as when Buck pulls off feats of daring that would put 007 to shame. But it’s engaging all the same, and I’d challenge anyone’s heart not to break when the half-starved mutts shuffle off to likely doom. Or not to melt at old Buck’s faithful protection even as another, more instinctive power is pulling him. 

Humans have instincts, too, and getting a bit misty about the eyes at the purity of soul displayed by our four-legged friends usually tops that list.

So while this Call of the Wild may not be the stuff classics are made of, it still makes for very fine, old-fashioned family entertainment. It’s as earnest, upright, and lovable as an old hound. And there’s little doubt kids in the audience will laugh, gasp, and hug their own pups a little tighter when they get home.

And if, when the sweetness is all over, you find yourself thinking a bit wistfully of the original tale’s sharper bite, take comfort. When it comes to stories that capture the stark beauty and harsh reality of the wild, we’ll always have London.