Gene Kelly doing the old soft shoe with Jerry the Mouse. That was the image I couldn't shake while watching Chris Sander's sanitized version of Jack London's The Call of the Wild, in which the protagonist, the massive canine Buck, is not played by a real dog but is a computer-generated image. To be sure, this was an expensive proposition, one that 20th Century Studios sunk at least $125 million into, for a variety of reasons


Yes, animal activists would be appeased because no real dogs would be harmed during the production. Yes, time would be saved in not having to wait for a genuine canine to hit his mark, jump, roll and bark as you'd want him to. And yes, Buck's expressions would be just as cute and fierce as Sanders would want them to be and he'd be able to pull off all the character's amazing feats with aplomb.


But at what cost? A constant distraction, the presence of this less-than-convincing, pixeled creation prevents viewers from becoming fully engaged in the story. Of course, with the myriad Disney productions (The Jungle Book, The Lion King) utilizing CGI animals like there's no tomorrow, this is the current state of films that rely on beasts interacting with flesh-and-blood human beings. It's a time of transition where viewing habits are concerned – my grandkids will be conditioned to accept this as being normal – and while the tech isn't quite there yet, it will be.


Adding insult to injury is the gutting of London's novel, which is toned down by screenwriter Michael Green so that Buck's transformation from house pet to wild beast is a family affair, one devoid of true meaning as the trials he faces during his journey lack gravitas. The prologue finds our furry hero as the lovable pet of Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford) and his family, lording over a massive estate in Santa Clarita, California. Buck cavorts acrobatically, strips turkey legs with one gulp and bounces off walls with an elasticity Wile E. Coyote would be envious of. However, his residency in paradise comes to an end when he's dognapped, sold and shipped to Alaska, where dogs of his size and strength are needed to pull sleds into the wild where thousands of fools are headed looking for gold.


The film begins to play fast and loose with the novel at this point, giving Buck's eventual master, John Thornton (Harrison Ford), an early introduction and unnecessary backstory, while other key events (the fight with the rabid wolfpack, the death of the three tenderfoots, Buck's pulling a sled with 1000 pounds of flour) are severely truncated or omitted altogether. Those who are unfamiliar with the novel won't notice their exclusion and more's the pity. Each and every event in London's tale serves the purpose of showing the extent through which Buck suffers, learns and survives to become his best self. Without these scenes, his journey lacks urgency and we're left with a bland adventure incapable of challenging the viewer or delivering a meaningful story.


By the time Dan Stevens showed up doing his Snidely Whiplash imitation as a put-upon prospector out for revenge, the only surprise was that the actor didn't twirl his moustache. It would at least have been in keeping with the broad strokes Sanders had applied in telling this tale, a neutered take that London would have disowned out of hand. However, he and so many other authors aren't around to defend their works any longer, while copyright laws allow those that want to make a quick buck to use them as they see fit. One would think that if a story were considered a classic it wouldn't need to be changed. Then again, classics aren't always good box office fare, I guess.


Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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