the call of the wild
20th Century Studios
Entertainment

The Controversial CGI Dog in 'The Call of the Wild' Is Good, Actually

Disney's new live-action/CGI hybrid adaptation of The Call of the Wild is a weird one. For one thing, it's another one of those movies that toes a very strange line between animation and live-action: all the people you see onscreen are the genuine article, but there isn't a flesh-and-blood animal in the entire movie, in spite of (but really because of) the fact that the whole thing is about a dog.

When the trailers for 20th Century Studios' new film arrived online, the reaction was pretty typical. Plenty of people wondered why Harrison Ford, who had just starred in his final Star Wars movie, needed to do… this. But most of the consternation came from the fact that the dog, canonically a St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix named Buck, isn't real. The Call of the Wild is the Avatar of dog movies: humans in costumes walking around CGI sets and interacting with CGI creatures, with most of the visual effects effort put into trying to make you believe, even though you probably won't, that you're looking at something real. But the joke's on all of you, you computer-imagery nonbelievers. The Call of the Wild is great. 

It's not like there's a particular demand right now for adaptations of animal stories set in the snowy arctic during the Klondike gold rush, and yet, here we are, with the sixth feature-length adaptation since Jack London's novel was published in 1903. This movie is also particularly sanitized. It spends a matter of seconds traveling up Skagway's White Pass, on which so many horses were killed it became known as the "Dead Horse Trail." The racist and violent First Nations characters are (rightly) taken out completely. It also shirks the book's brutality, cutting all the dog deaths or allowing them to happen offscreen. It makes sense, of course. The Venn diagram of the people who would want to see a gritty, bloody, heartbreaking realization of Jack London's vision onscreen and the people who just want a new movie to take their kids to on a weekend afternoon is two circles very, very far apart. 

The Call of the Wild is, after all, a kids' movie, though I wouldn't necessarily call its source material a kids' book. (I read it when I was too young for it, and I hated how sad it was.) It's directed by Chaotic Good kids' movie director Chris Sanders, who also brought us Lilo & Stitch, How to Train Your Dragon, and co-directed The Croods (better than you'd think!). None of the animals speak, but an internal dialogue taken from passages of London's book is narrated by Ford, who plays John Thornton. Even so, Buck and the rest of the dogs were roundly criticized for looking "uncanny" and "weirdly human." There's a reason for that!

The discourse started in earnest last week, when a tweet from a Buzzfeed reporter went semi viral, featuring a clip of a man in a gray motion-capture suit playing the dog, sitting on his heels and handing Harrison Ford a piece of paper with his mouth. 

Yeah, it's weird! But, trust me, it's less weird with context. This is motion-capture actor Terry Notary, who has starred in the new Planet of the Apes movies, as well as Kong: Skull Island and a number of Avengers films (and who, full disclosure, I have interviewed in the past and who is very nice and knowledgeable about all kinds of different styles of acting). That's a man playing a dog! He deserves some respect, not least because I am willing to bet he is dog-acting way better than any of us could do, and probably better than even a lot of real dogs.

The animation also looks quite good, when you get past the fact that nearly every landscape is altered or painted-over or completely fabricated in some way. I am here to say: Get over it! Get over yourselves! Look at the flowers, the trees, the way the sled dogs sometimes have little expressions on their faces! It's kind of fun to see! We've come a long way from counting the couple thousand hairs on Sully Sullenberger's back.

I've seen a few people saying that if Disney had just gone back to their roots and done a traditionally animated 2-D cartoon adaptation of this story, with this same level of care and attention to detail given the tech they have now, it would look incredible, and I don't disagree with that. It's also an interesting thought experiment to keep you up late at night. This version of The Call of the Wild is a movie starring a human playing a dog that's slowly un-domesticating itself, betrayed by the human society that created it and re-learning all the instinctual behaviors bred out of it from its ancestral wolf days. As Buck becomes wilder, Notary, playing him, stops performing the typical dog behaviors of before: he stops holding eye contact with humans, runs further and further into the woods with his wolf pals, and accepts less and less attention from people.

The Call of the Wild seemingly exists on the cusp of some unknown new way of filmmaking: the closer we get to replicating the natural world, the further we are from actually incorporating it into our entertainment, opting for pixels instead of flesh and blood. It's the kind of sobering artistic conundrum you can't help but admire. 

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.