Harrison Ford adventure The Call of The Wild 'bares its fangs but seldom bites'

Harrison Ford joins the gold rush in late 19th-century Yukon in the family-oriented action-adventure The Call of The Wild. Damon Smith reviews

Harrison Ford as John Thornton in The Call of The Wild
Damon Smith

JACK London's 1903 short story The Call Of The Wild re-frames the author's experiences of the 1896 Klondike Gold Rush through the eyes of a St Bernard-Scotch Collie mix named Buck.

It's a compelling adventure, punctuated by howls of unflinching brutality and cruelty including the deaths of myriad dogs from starvation and neglect and the murder of a central character at the hands of fictional indigenous peoples.

Director Chris Sanders and screenwriter Michael Green domesticate the novella for family audiences, house-training a rollicking outdoor odyssey which bares its fangs but seldom bites.

They invent a thrilling avalanche escape by dog sled and a white-water canoe sequence to quicken pulses, gender-flip one musher to thaw out a romantic subplot, excise peripheral characters and refashion a bleak, blood-saturated ending as a conventional showdown between benevolence and avarice.

No real-life animals were harmed because four-legged protagonists are rendered using cutting-edge photo-realistic visual effects and motion capture performance.

Digital trickery melds neatly with live-action components but doesn't strive for rigorous authenticity – a decidedly anthropomorphic Buck can't resist an occasional sideways glance for comic effect or a mournful lowering of eyes to shamelessly pluck animal lovers' heartstrings.

Buck is the house pet of Californian judge Miller (Bradley Whitford) and his family, who have grown wearily accustomed to the dog's insatiable appetite and playful manner.

Late one night, a local man dognaps the pampered pooch and sells the creature into service in the vast frozen wilderness of Alaska, pulling a mail delivery sled driven by Perrault (Omar Sy) and Francoise (Cara Gee).

The couple patiently train Buck to follow in the paw prints of aggressive husky Spitz, who leads the sled and meets any challenge to his authority with snarling intimidation.

Perrault is quietly confident of Buck's potential but Francoise harbours doubts.

Eventually, the canines are sold to inexperienced gold prospector Hal (Dan Stevens), his sister Mercedes (Karen Gillan) and Charles (Colin Woodell), who whip the animals to the brink of death.

Just as all hope seems lost, grief-stricken explorer John Thornton (Harrison Ford) rescues Buck from a grim fate and the grateful dog recovers to become a devoted servant to his new master.

The Call Of The Wild shies away from the harsh realism of London's writing and introduces a spectral timber wolf with glowing eyes as a visual representation of Buck's internal struggle with the primitive instincts of his ancestors.

Ford casts a warm, avuncular glow and forges an endearing partnership with his computer-generated co-star.

Stevens stops shy of twiddling the moustache of his antagonist, who surrenders his sanity to a bout of gold fever.

Sanders's picture pans for its own riches and extracts small gleaming nuggets of heart-warming drama.

Rating: 5/10

THE CALL OF THE WILD (PG, 100 mins) Adventure/Action/Drama/Romance. Harrison Ford, Omar Sy, Cara Gee, Dan Stevens, Bradley Whitford, Karen Gillan, Colin Woodell. Director: Chris Sanders.

Released: February 19

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