Animated Dogs…Who Knew? [The Call of the Wild]

I was an unwilling participant in my emotional investment in The Call of the Wild, a movie hemorrhaging money and featuring an overly-obviously animated dog as the main character. However, I not only connected with this movie, I was laughing from the moment Buck ripped through his home in the opening scene, bouncing his owners children off their beds, and I was already sad and angry at Buck’s forced displacement from his home in the scenes that soon followed. Like really angry and really sad. There is a scene where a man threatens Buck with a club, and I still hate that man. I wanted the movie to break from its story line and show that man stalked and killed like this was Kill Bill. Similarly, when Buck found a new loving owner in Perrault, who was patient and kind and allowed him to learn and grow with a pack, I was so goddamn happy. I wanted the movie to end right there, after only an hour, and for Buck to continue to deliver mail for the rest of time (alas, this was not to be). And I wasn’t alone. In the theater there were so many audible laughs and groans and mutters of dismay, more than I remember hearing in any other movie. These were powerful emotions, and maybe they happened because I wasn’t expecting them or prepared for them like when you steel yourself for an emotional film, but I am shocked at them, mostly because they came from a dog…No. An animated dog.

Especially since this dog was not a paragon of new age special effects. There was never a moment where it dawned on me that the dog was animated after thinking it was real- it was painfully obvious from the first scene. I never marveled at how lifelike Buck looked- he looked really animated the whole time. But it worked. In fact, I eventually started to think of the movie as an animated film. We have seen instances of lots of animation in a ‘live’ film, but to me this became lots of ‘live’ action in an animated film. And that worked for me. This blending was done well enough that we got the best of both worlds and a great way to tell this story.

Buck is way beyond your average dog in emotional intelligence and ability. They could never have gotten a real dog to play Buck even if they wanted to put the work in. And since Buck was animated, we got to see all the best parts of dogs, the looks, the emotions, the sadness, the tongue mlems, those big brown eyes, and those moments all perfectly timed (the secret recipe for any funny animal moment). Buck is the perfect dog in The Call of the Wild, and he needed animation to portray him.

So why animate the people as well? They didn’t have to, and they didn’t, and the movie was better for it. Because a dog’s emotions may become better with animation, but a person’s becomes worse. I don’t want an animated Harrison Ford, give me Harrison Ford in all his grumpy old man splendor. So as Buck romped on screen and raised hell and loved and cried (that part might have been me), it was all the emotions of a dog film on steroids. They washed over me like a tidal wave. And as Ford stalked the screen, searching for meaning in the wake of his family’s demise, we got all of his emotion as well. And then together, they form an emotional Molotov cocktail. There is an awesome scene towards the beginning  of the movie where Buck is going to be sold, and he runs into Harrison Ford and helps him out by returning his dropped harmonica, and you think, “Okay good, Ford will buy Buck, Buck will be safe, and the movie can get going with these two.” But it didn’t. It took forever for Ford and Buck to get together, they kept teasing it, and I wanted them to be together so badly-and expected it based on the marketing- but neither of them were ready for each other. And when they did finally end up together, the journey was all the sweeter. 

I understand why people are shying away from it. Seeing trailers with Ford interacting with an animated dog looks silly. But it’s not silly. It’s a recipe in making people feel things they weren’t willing to feel. It’s streamlining a feel-good movie. They found a way to include all of the ways we should connect with Buck, all of the best parts of watching a movie, and all of the best parts of great performances from Harrison Ford and Omar Sy. It didn’t try to do too much or be anything it wasn’t. It punched me right in the heart-balls, and I could do nothing but feel it.

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