We didn’t get to see the new and supposedly uninspiring film version of Jane Austen’s “Emma” on its opening weekend. The closest Manhattan’s movie theater offerings got was Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild.”
Or sort of. The new gold rush movie features changes made to suit the preoccupations of today (so the dog doesn’t attack and kill murderous “Yeehats” here). Then, too, the movie’s story has been streamlined. It was originally written in semi-independent episodes for publication in issues of Saturday Evening Post.
Harrison Ford, who plays Buck the large dog’s kind master, has his name above the title. But the real star of the movie is a stray found in Emporia. Or at least moviegoers watch a computer-generated version of that collie and St. Bernard mix.
There is considerably more computer-animation in “The Call of the Wild” than there is Yukon scenery. Dozens of animals — horses, sled dogs, wolves, a bear and a feral hog — have been photographed. Then, tech heads have turned the images, stances and some of the animals’ motions into fairly convincing (but way too efficient) mute representations of animals.
Some of the sets seemed to have been “generated,” too. The programmers have done a lovely job. But they have also proved again that stage illusion isn’t the same as reality, and that the differences are sometimes fairly obvious.
Nevertheless, the CGI and a few long vistas suitable for calendar art are among the movie’s assets. And certainly Ford (and his human co-stars Cara Gee, Dan Stevens and Omar Sy) all have good turns here.
But let’s consider the story. Buck is dog-napped in California, in the 1890s, and shipped off to southern Alaska. Sled dog candidates were in demand there as the gold rush rolled on.
Bright and strong, Buck soon learns to be part of the pack. He saves one of the other dogs and one of the human postal freighters from death in icy waters.
And he supplants the team’s lead dog. When Buck leads the team into a cavern to save the sled from an avalanche, the post arrives uncharacteristically on time in distant Dawson of the Yukon.
But then the team is sold to dudes following a treasure map. They know nothing about the north and nothing about dog teams. Just before a catastrophe (also involving water), Buck is saved by hard-drinking (and movie story narrating) Thornton (Ford).
He treats Buck well. The two of them go off to a wilderness area frequently fantasized about by Thornton’s late son. There, they find an uninhabited cabin, a pack of wolves, salmon and rabbits, and a stream full of gold nuggets.
But the surviving dude is stalking them, intent on misguided revenge. And Buck finds himself drawn more to the wild, represented here by a ghostly black wolf who appears at key moments.
A few features of the story may present ticket-holders with problems. Is the dude kicked out of the saloon just for having a gun on him? Can any set of dude characters be as stupid and sensitive as are those in the party that buys Buck’s team? Is it just luck that Thornton’s son was interested in the area that was the dudes’ target?
Now, we expect Buck to have super-canine instincts and skill that allow him to save those endangered by flowing water and tip him off that Thornton needs help.
So audience expectations help the movie’s story a bit. Still, we know while we are watching that some of the story turns are as unreal as some of the images of sentimentalized dogs and wolves.
Those movie-goers who are looking for a little adventure of an uncomplicated Hollywood kind will find what they want in a showing of “The Call of the Wild.”
But when are movie-goers looking for “Emma” going to find it in the theater at the local mall?