As a big proponent for the use of practical effects over computer-generated effects, I was highly disenchanted by the trailer for The Call of the Wild. When filmmakers use CGI as a crutch, it tends to make the viewer numb to the emotional stakes of the film. There is a place for CGI, no doubt. When used to enhance what physically cannot be created or to perform tasks that may be too dangerous otherwise, it can be quite effective; when used for no other reason than because it’s there, even though something real or practical could do the job just as well (and sometimes even better), it becomes unnecessary imitation.
There are plenty of films I can point to that used real animals in similar situations as seen in Wild, including Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey and Eight Below. These movies are incredibly strong because you feel what the animals are going through; you connect with them on a human level because their emotions aren’t tainted with the aid of any tricks. So, it’s hard for me to believe director Chris Sanders couldn’t have used real animals for at least 75 percent of the film in order to bring that same depth.
I say 75 percent because there are a lot of harrowing sequences in the film that would put a real animal in danger had they done it all practically. It’s understandable for Sanders to use computer animation in these sequences; but to choose to create all of the wildlife in the film — from a herd of antelope to a pack of timberwolves — inside of a computer, I struggled to connect to Buck and engage in the journey he takes throughout the film.
This disconnect also may very well have been because of the less-than-stellar quality of the animation. As opposed to Sonic or Scooby-Doo, where the characters are meant to be bordering on cartoon status, the animals in Wild are meant to be real, so giving Buck a few exaggerated mannerisms adds to the phoniness of his character. We also know, based on the amazing effects created for The Lion King remake, that it is possible to create photo-realistic animals. I don’t know if it was the budget, the team they hired, or a little of both, but the animation always felt fake and unrealistic.
With that said, everything around the animals are so well-done, it allowed me to settle into the idea of the computer-generated animals more easily. The beautiful cinematography presents the vast world Buck must navigate with majesty and grace; and, aside from one extremely weak and cliché performance by Dan Stevens as a high-society gold digger that feels more out of place than the CGI, everyone did a great job of helping me accept Buck as part of this very real world.
Buck begins the film as a dog living in high society, where his antics don’t play so well with his owners. After Buck is stolen by a dog trader, he’s sold to Perrault (Omar Sy), a mail carrier who uses a rag-tag team of mutts to pull his sled through the Alaska tundra. Despite the episodic nature of the storytelling, I did feel some sense of satisfaction by the end of the film.
But, wait, you may ask. Where’s Harrison Ford fit into all of this? For those who have seen the marketing for Wild, you’d expect the movie to be about the relationship between Ford and Buck. The truth is, Ford is only a small part of a larger cast that includes some surprisingly short cameo appearances by several big name stars, such as Bradley Whitford and Karen Gillan.
This may feel a bit misleading, however, it also goes to the meaning behind the film. The humans in the film (and subsequently in Buck’s life) come and go without a lot of fanfare, which plays very well into the concept of life. People will always come into our lives when they’re most needed, and after they’ve served their purpose, we never see them again. This is what gives the film so much of its resonance.
Buck builds some very strong relationships with several of the humans (and some that provide pain, both physical and emotional), but they are only props to help him find his way to who and what he is eventually meant to be. Buck’s emerging strength throughout the film also provides a perfect message for kids and adults alike. To find your way to your ultimate destination, you have to be brave and kind and have the confidence to believe in yourself, even when no one else does.
There are some funny and sweet moments in Wild, I just wish the producers had been brave enough to use real animals for the majority of the film. Who knows how much funnier and sweeter it would have been had they gone that direction. My guess is it would have risen the film to a much higher emotional level; and maybe, just maybe would have helped the human performances even more, elevating the film from good to excellent.
My Grade: A-
Even though Brahms: The Boy II completely negates the conceit of the original film by adding in a supernatural element, the film somehow makes the whole thing work by providing a brand new lore behind the history of the doll that doesn’t take away from the first film, but adds an additional layer that actually makes sense. B
Next week, new movies include The Invisible Man. If you would like to see a review for this, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.