Old meets new in “The Call of the Wild,” though not just in terms of a fresh take on the classic 1903 Jack London novel: The latest adaptation marries Disney-fied hokum with digital dogs that’ll make you question reality.
At least Harrison Ford does his grizzled best to ground a hybrid film awash in computer-generated animals and visual pizzazz. “Call of the Wild” (★★ out of four; rated PG; in theaters nationwide Friday) presents a lovely rendering of nature in the Yukon circa the 1890s Gold Rush but you can’t help but think it’s all a charade, which is probably not the greatest thing for a movie that hinges on a CGI pooch.
Buck is the special effect in question, a St. Bernard/Scotch Collie mix played here, in part, by motion capture actor Terry Notary. Living the pampered pup life in California, the rambunctious Buck is nabbed from the house of his wealthy owner (Bradley Whitford) and sold, as dogs have become a necessity for gold prospectors up north.
Our domesticated hero learns the pack mentality while working for the good-hearted master (Omar Sy) of a Canadian dog-sled delivery team and ups his own confidence level tussling with the group’s alpha, a husky named Spitz.
A series of episodes – and the occasional run-in with his inner wolf, which appears to Buck as a shadowy, red-eyed figure – leads him to a friendship with John Thornton (Ford), a rugged outdoorsman who’s escaped to the Yukon for more emotional reasons than gold. As they help each other and become best pals, Buck begins to find a new pack of furry peers while neither man nor beast is safe from a psychopathic prospector (Dan Stevens).
Directed by animation veteran Chris Sanders (“Lilo & Stitch,” “How to Train Your Dragon”), “The Call of the Wild” struggles with its canine conundrum: The movie doesn’t use actual dogs and relies completely on photorealistic depictions, so while not risking putting real animals in potential danger, there’s potential for everything to look a little fake.
Sometimes the technology works, especially in the action set pieces. One amazing sequence finds Buck and his sled dogs trucking across ice and bounding speedily through a cave to avoid a deadly avalanche. Also, the filmmakers spend a lot of time showing Buck’s expressive face and movements, including cocked eyebrows and the fact that he can open doors like a champ. (If only last year’s “Lion King” redo had furry personalities that came across this well.)
Up close, though, the effects at times make Buck and other creatures look truly odd – if you’ve heard of the uncanny valley for digital humans, this is the uncanny doghouse.
Thank goodness for Ford, who brings most of the emotion to “Call of the Wild,” though he doesn’t really play a key role until halfway through the film. On the other extreme, Stevens is so cartoonishly villainous it hurts.
The movie often veers into the territory of a corny Wonderful World of Disney movie – just with a whole bunch more money and digitized critters – yet “Call of the Wild” gives Buck a complete story arc and features Ford at his most game. The narrative, bouncing between slapstick and melodrama, leans into the theme of dogs as man’s best friend and at the same time is a great reminder that there’s nothing like the real thing.