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The biggest problem with ‘Call of the Wild’ is the dog

The biggest problem with ‘Call of the Wild’ is its CGI dog.

SHARE The biggest problem with ‘Call of the Wild’ is the dog
Harrison Ford in “The Call of the Wild,” the latest attempt to bring Jack London’s 1903 novel to the big screen.

Harrison Ford in “The Call of the Wild,” the latest attempt to bring Jack London’s 1903 novel to the big screen.

20th Century Studios

The new “Call of the Wild” movie makes me think about something Jeff Goldblum said in “Jurassic Park.”

In a landmark movie about scientists using technology to bring dinosaurs back from the dead, which used cutting-edge CGI to bring those dinosaurs to the big screen, Goldblum delivered the film’s most poignant line of dialogue:

“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Looking back, you wish “Jurassic Park” had come with a warning: results may vary. It seemed like for every successful attempt to integrate CGI characters — i.e., Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy — we got a cringe-worthy failure — ironically, Peter Jackson’s bloated “The Hobbit” trilogy. And almost 30 years later, things don’t seem to have changed.

Chris Sanders’ “Call of the Wild,” the latest attempt to bring Jack London’s 1903 novel to the big screen, is not a landmark movie. It’s not even all that memorable of a movie. But it is the latest example of why filmmakers should take extra care when mixing CGI with the real world.

The plot follows a burly dog named Buck, who is kidnapped from a well-to-do family in California and transported to the wild Yukon in the madness of a 19th century Alaskan gold rush. The family-friendly adventure is the latest in a recent run of movies with a canine protagonist, which includes “A Dog’s Purpose,” “A Dog’s Way Home,” and “The Art of Racing in the Rain.”

But where those films used real-life trained dogs to anchor their stories, Buck is 100% CGI, the product of a motion-capture performance by Cirque du Soleil performer Terry Notary. So are all his four-legged co-stars. Everything else — including Buck’s human companion, played by Harrison Ford — is live action.

CGI has produced a number of excellent animal characters in recent years — the cast of the recent “Planet of the Apes” trilogy comes to mind — but Buck is not one of them. Buck looks just good enough at a distance to jar you when an unfortunate close-up reveals a character stuck somewhere between photorealistic and something from one of the “Secret Life of Pets” movies.

The effect feels like a dog version of the so-called “uncanny valley” — the term used to describe human CGI characters that look just real enough to remind you they don’t have souls. At best, Buck and his friends look cartoonish; at worst, they look creepy. The most blatant example is a painful slow-motion shot halfway through the film where Buck body-slams a rival sled dog in a move that looks like it was taken out of a Looney Tunes cartoon. When you consider Sanders’ background — he previously directed animated features like 2002’s “Lilo & Stitch” and the first “How to Train Your Dragon” — the style makes a bit more sense, but it’s no less distracting.

Presumably the rationale for CGI Buck is that by rendering the character in a computer, Sanders and Co. would have greater power to follow the nuanced and/or action-heavy beats of the original story. W.C. Fields long ago cautioned his Hollywood peers to never work with children or animals, and Sanders seems to have taken that advice to a fault.

The problem is that in the gritty context of “Call of the Wild,” Buck needs to look unmistakably real, and the character’s failure is a persistent distraction. While other recent films put a heavy load on CGI animal characters — 2016’s “Jungle Book” remake and last year’s “Lion King” being the most obvious examples — those films existed in worlds that didn’t require total reality.

“Jungle Book” may have surrounded a human actor with CGI animals, but as in “Lion King” — which, yes, had its own problems — those animals were also talking and singing. There was nothing in the contract that presumed a 100% authentic experience for the audience. Even all the recent “talking dog” movies have relied on off-screen narrators to voice the canine’s thoughts.

I’m not suggesting “Call of the Wild” should have made Buck talk or sing — it’s awkward enough to picture Ford interacting with a motion-capture suited Notary. But thanks to the CGI gaffe, “Call of the Wild” becomes a pretender that feels not ready for prime time. A real-life Buck might have been more of a challenge on set, but the on-screen results would have been worth the hassle. And if there were concerns for the safety of the dogs during the action scenes, CGI could have been used for those passages exclusively. 

We’ve seen worse. I mean, “Cats” may still hold the big screen title belt for CGI atrocities. But “Call of the Wild” is still a pertinent reminder that just because we can do something, that doesn’t always mean we should.