‘The Call Of The Wild’ (Or, ‘Raiders Of The Lost Bark’) Is Pretty Damn Good

(Note: I went back and forth on my Indiana Jones pun used in the title between “Raiders of the Lost Bark,” or some sort of variation of the short-lived collaboration between Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog. Though the latter seemed to get too complicated, combining three separate references, so I went with the word that rhymes with “Ark” and is also the sound a dog makes.)

It’s almost like someone watched Bradley Cooper’s 2018 adaptation of A Star is Born and thought, you know, it’s also been a few years since we’ve had an updated version of The Call of the Wild. Though, it’s a little harder to peg down just how many adaptations of Jack London’s book there have been over the years – mostly because there’s a version with Snoopy that may or may not qualify – but let’s just say it’s “over five.”

Do kids still read this book? I have no idea. I distinctly remember reading The Call of the Wild, though it wasn’t an assigned reading. When I was in grade school, every few months there’d be some sort of Scholastic order form passed around where kids could buy books. I picked The Call of the Wild because I liked the cover art of the dog. The reason I remember this is because it very well might have been the only book I bought that wasn’t a “Choose Your Own Adventure.”

Anyway, this brings us to the 2020 version of The Call of the Wild, directed by Chris Sanders, that I was kind of dreading, but found to be a pleasant enough experience. I still remember some of the, let’s say, rougher elements of the book and wasn’t sure I wanted to relive those in a movie starring Harrison Ford and a motion capture dog named Buck (who, I just now learned was portrayed by Terry Notary; I now kind of can’t wait to see the behind the scenes footage of Harrison Ford acting with this man pretending to be a dog). So, yes, a lot of the animal violence has been toned down, targeting this version directly at kids.

Also gone is the original ending, with the final villain changing from Native Americans to rich jerk Hal, played by Dan Stevens – twirling his mustache, as he’s huffing and puffing his way through the film.

If you somehow don’t know the basic plot of The Call of the Wild, strong dogs are highly valuable commodities in late 19th century Alaska. Buck, our hero, is stolen from his home in California and sent up to Alaska to be a sled dog. As time goes on, Buck becomes more in tune with his ancestry and learns to thrive in the wild. As the story goes on, Buck passes through a series of owners. Some of them are nice and some are jerks. Which gets to the problem: how does the movie make use of Bucks last owner, John Thornton, when he’s only in the last part of the book? Especially when John Thornton is played by Harrison Ford, who is on all the posters and will be a big reason people see this movie?

Well, so, no, Ford isn’t in the movie a lot in the first half. He does narrate the film and makes a couple of cameos in Buck’s life. So, by the time John becomes the main character, he’s already met Buck a couple of times and they already have a bit of a bond. And when Ford shows up, the movie kicks into another gear. Ford seems to be legitimately enjoying himself, laughing and goofing around with Buck. (Again, I really want to see the behind the scenes footage. Especially the moment Ford finds out that they wouldn’t actually be filming in Alaska.) Regardless, Ford brings an earnest, heartwarming charm to the film. Playing a broken man, still mourning the loss of his son, who finally finds happiness and companionship through Buck. It’s legitimately nice to watch a movie where Ford smiles and laughs this much. It’s pretty infectious.

Again, I have no problem with the story being changed and some of the animal violence being toned down to almost a zero. (In the book, when Buck finally squares off with his nemesis, Spitz, in a fight for control of the pack, Buck kills Spitz. That’s not what happens in the movie.) I’m not sure who a faithful adaptation of The Call of the Wild would even be for in 2020. Instead, we get a pleasant movie about Harrison Ford having a nice time, laughing it up with his dog pal – and I really can’t imagine a better way to tell this story than that.

‘The Call Of The Wild’ opens in theaters this weekend. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.