Culture on My Mind
January 3, 2020
In the inaugural edition of Culture on My Mind, the thing that I can’t let go of is the late November 2019 trailer release for The Call of the Wild.
The Call of the Wild is a 1903 novel written by Jack London. Set in Yukon, Canada during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush, the story is centered on a dog named Buck. Buck is a large and powerful St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix, and he is stolen from his California home and sold into service as a sled dog. He becomes more and more feral in the harsh Yukon environment and is forced to fight to survive. By the end of his journey, Buck emerges as a leader in the wild and becomes a legend in his own right.
The novel has been adapted to film and television at least eight times, and a big-budget version directed by Chris Sanders (the creator and voice of Stitch, and the director of How to Train Your Dragon) and starring Harrison Ford, Dan Stevens, Omar Sy, Karen Gillan, and Bradley Whitford should look amazing.
Unfortunately, I’m too distracted by Buck.
Instead of using a live dog in the role supplemented by CGI special effects for dangerous stunts, 20th Century Fox and the creative team decided to use a totally computer-generated dog with cartoonish responses as the story’s lead. It’s particularly disappointing given the long history of family films that include trained animal actors in starring roles. Disney alone has at least 70 titles that fit the bill, including the Homeward Bound/Incredible Journey films, Old Yeller, White Fang, Eight Below, 101 Dalmatians, and Benji the Hunted. Most recently, they released Togo for Disney+ and that film bridged CG and live-action quite nicely.
Even if Fox didn’t want to include Disney’s expertise – The Call of the Wild began development in 2017 and starting principal photography in late-September 2018, right in the middle of the negotiations for the Disney acquisition of 21st Century Fox – the talent and knowledge exists in the industry to make this film work with a live animal actor. Universal did it with two Babe films and three adaptations of W. Bruce Cameron’s work (A Dog’s Purpose, A Dog’s Journey, and A Dog’s Way Home). Columbia Pictures (now part of Sony) brought us The Adventures of Milo and Otis. Warner Bros made Free Willy. Paramount did Charlotte’s Web.
Not to mention the entire Benji franchise, of which only one title was touched by Disney.
Frankly, a story like The Call of the Wild deserves better than being undermined by cartoonish CGI effects. It’s possible that the effects weren’t finalized by the November trailer release, but several scenes certainly played like the cartoon responses were part of the joke. I just expected more of a White Fang than something like this.
The Call of the Wild hits theaters on February 21, 2020.
Culture on My Mind is inspired by the weekly Can’t Let It Go segment on the NPR Politics Podcast where each host brings one thing to the table that they just can’t stop thinking about.
For more creativity with a critical eye, visit Creative Criticality.