Jack London’s often-filmed novel makes an interesting test case for the use of CGI animals – a mo-capped Terry Notary is rendered digitally into London’s canine hero, Buck, and does the sorts of things that no dog trainer could get a pooch to do, and the effect works well enough when animals are interacting with each other … though I get the impression that the bulb dims in the segment when Harrison Ford and Buck are sharing screen together, which might be as much due to a slight dip in interest as an old-timer maunders about his dead son and abandoned wife back in civilisation as any failure of the uncanny valley.
A privileged (ie: spoiled) pet of a judge (Bradley Whitford) in the late 19th century, Buck is dognapped and sold as a work-dog in the Yukon during the gold rush. This section of narrative is like an animal version of 12 Years a Slave only slavery with its brutality but attendant discipline is actually good for the abductee. Buck joins the team of a Canadian mailman (Omar Sy) and his sidekick (Cara Gee) and not only learns to pull together rather than cause chaotic spills but eventually bests pack leader Spitz to take the top spot – the beaten Spitz sort of disappears, like a lot of animals (and a few people) this family-friendly film doesn’t want to kill onscreen. When the telegraph replaces the mail run, Buck gets sold to a rich nasty prospector (Dan Stevens) but John Thornton (Ford) steps in to save him from brutality – and creates an enemy for life. Not only to the other dogs disappear, so does the prospector’s fancy woman (Karen Gillan) and a crate of Moet – I’d be up for their spinoff adventure as she rises to take over all the vice and gambling in Skagway.
Jack whimsically heads for a spot off the map with Buck, which turns out to be almost exactly the locale visited by Tom Waits in the London-derived segment of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, creating a Jack London Extended Cinematic Universe. There, with wolves – including a pure white love interest and a perhaps symbolic black creature – interact with Buck, and he answers the title’s call … though there’s a bit of Western gunplay beforehand. Screenwriter Michael Green, who did Green Lantern and Logan, and director Chris Sanders, in his first sort-of live-action film after Lilo & Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon, craft the episodic story cannily, though Ford’s narration works better when he’s not onscreen and sometimes it’d be nice to get more of a sense of the real landscape and real fur alongside the carefully crafted simulation, but it has great action scenes (dodging an avalanche, a plunge under the ice) and a lot of doggy heart. With Michael Horse.