A story that features an animal usually sparks one specific question: Does the creature survive? To quell this particular concern, trust that the dog in How to Train Your Dragon co-director Chris Sanders’ adaptation of Jack London’s classic novel The Call of the Wild does indeed make it. But more than merely remain alive, the canine comes to understand the difference between having a pack and having a master, and that one doesn’t always equate to the comfort of the other.
As in the original tale, Buck (Terry Notary, in a fantastic motion-capture performance) is a 140-pound sweetheart of a dog who’s snatched from a life of luxury and sent to the Yukon, where he passes from owner to owner. While Buck engages with various humans and animals, the bulk of his time is spent with optimistic-yet-determined mailman Perrault (Omar Sy, Jurassic World) and melancholic John Thornton (Harrison Ford).
Sy is incredibly engrossing as a beacon of humanity’s kindness toward animals, demonstrating that leading from a place of tenderness is far more effective than being vicious. And Ford puts in some of his best work in years. While his acting in the recent Star Wars films is good (but distant), he’s astoundingly engaged with this story, and, by extension, makes each scene with the CGI Buck increasingly believable as the story unfolds.
While maintaining the source material’s period setting, screenwriter Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) does an excellent job of tweaking the story for a modern age — removing several problematic aspects and streamlining the narrative, all without losing its emotional heft. The end result can feel a bit of a mixed bag, but one that’s nevertheless entertaining, heartfelt and surprisingly emotional.
Stars Feb. 21