Chris Sanders has made three solid animated films in his career: Lilo & Stitch for Disney, and How to Train Your Dragon and The Croods for DreamWorks. He returns to the Disney fold to make his live-action debut, but that was a crucial error. With an abundance of CGI, the film is mostly animated already. And the few human actors and real locations only serve to underscore how phony the sets and effects look. Every time I saw a shot of the Northern Lights or an underwater rescue – and there were many – I couldn't help but be struck how much better it would look as a fully animated movie. (Better yet, a hand-drawn animated movie.)
The Call of the Wild is aimed squarely at kids ages 4 to 10. It's an extremely simple story, and if for some reason you can't follow it, Harrison Ford is here with narration even more lifeless than the original cut of Blade Runner. Our hero is Buck, a rambunctious, spoiled St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix, who is only as big as the scene calls for. In his early life of domestic bliss, he literally causes the walls of his master's house to shake. Later on, he doesn't look any larger than a fully grown dog you might see at the park.
Buck is kidnapped and sold as a sled dog in Alaska, where he ruins the first few days of travel. He quickly transitions from being a lazy pup to a strong runner, and eventually overtakes the lead position, because he, uh, is nice to the other dogs? There's a decent sense of adventure here, but then the story abruptly comes to a halt, as the mail route Buck led his masters (Omar Sy and Cara Lee) on shuts down, and the team is sold to a greedy prospector (Dan Stevens, practically twirling his mustache), then almost immediately rescued by John (Harrison Ford). The pair set out on a journey of their own, with Buck venturing further and further away from the comforts of home.
The Call of the Wild corrects an issue many had with Disney's remake of The Lion King: the animals are more expressive, but the animators over-corrected. Now the dogs don't even react like normal dogs. Their actions are so exaggerated, I kept waiting for them to talk. Their cartoonish eyes make them feel less real, decreasing our connection with the animals. Yes, the dogs are cute. But that's not enough to carry a whole movie.