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Review: Unconvincing 'The Call of the Wild' not worth heeding

Harrison Ford shares screen with digital mutt in corny family adventure

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Fantastic things can be done with CGI these days. 

But you wouldn't know it by watching "The Call of the Wild," a jumpy-looking CGI misfire in which Harrison Ford and a digital dog go on an adventure together in the Alaskan wilderness. 

Harrison Ford in "Call of the Wild."

The dog, Buck, isn't meant to be a computerized simulation; the character is a fur-and-blood St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix. 

But director Chris Sanders ("How to Train Your Dragon," "The Croods") decided to go the simulated route and gives us a pixelated pup that never comes close to looking realistic. Dogs are among us and have been used in movies for as long as there have been movies. The sudden jump to zeroes and ones in their place is distracting to the point where it completely takes you out of the story. 

It's not just Buck; there are dozens of "animals" in "The Call of the Wild," and they're all facsimiles. No animals were harmed in the making of "The Call of the Wild," because there's no actual animals in "The Call of the Wild."

Actor and movement expert Terry Notary — who has done motion capture work in "Avatar" and the "Avengers" movies — is the stand-in whose movements formed the basis of Buck. On some level, it's impressive that such technology exists. But it's in no way preferable to a real life, on-screen doggo, and "Call of the Wild" suffers for it.  

Ford, laying it on thick as a gruff, man-of-the-woods type, plays John Thornton, who sets off for the wilderness with Buck in tow. He's out to square some unsettled business and although he doesn't know it yet, Buck is, too. That call of the wild beckons for both. 

Along the way, they run into a group of slippery city slickers looking for gold. They're led by the snide Hal (a wasted Dan Stevens), who snivels like a villain in an early silent film; it's a wonder he doesn't sit around twirling his mustache and laughing maniacally. 

The film is based on Jack London's wildly popular 1903 novel, which has been adapted several times before, including a 1935 version with Clark Gable and a 1972 telling with Charlton Heston.  

It's not directly a Disney film but it may as well be; it's being distributed by 20th Century Studios, the former 20th Century Fox that is now owned by Disney, and it certainly looks and acts like a Disney film, so call it what you want. 

"The Call of the Wild" is technically a live-action film, but much of its imagery appears digitally enhanced if not entirely computer-generated, so the line is blurred.

It's enough to wonder why the filmmakers didn't just go all the way and make an animated film, where at least the effects wouldn't look so clunky. This rendering is about as believable as "Sonic the Hedgehog," and half as fun. 

'The Call of the Wild'

GRADE: C

Rated PG: for some violence, peril, thematic elements and mild language

Running time: 110 minutes

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama