A well-received world premiere selection at last month’s Palm Springs Film Festival, “The Call of the Wild” is a pleasant surprise. Much more faithful to Jack London’s 1903 classic than the two Hollywood versions (1935, 1972), Peter Svatek’s vigorously mounted adventure deserves to be seen on the big screen, although video and cable are its most likely venues for striking it rich.
A friendly movie for school-age children, although there is plenty of frontier violence and tragedy, the appeal of “Call” is not limited to young boys or families. Joining the likes of “The Secret Garden” and “Black Beauty”, “Call of the Wild” takes a chance with old-fashioned storytelling and is heavily narrated by Richard Dreyfuss.
Like “Black Beauty”, the period story is episodic and presents a credible scenario that romantically and realistically incorporates a four-legged hero who has a soul and destiny, friends and enemies, and a history that becomes a legend.
Filmed splendidly in Quebec, with many exteriors involving animals and frigid conditions, “Call” is the story of Buck, a Leonberger (a cross between a St. Bernard, Labrador and Great Pyrenees) who is shanghaied one day and put to work on a sled in the wild gold-rush era of Alaska and the Yukon.
Strong but not used to the cruelty of man and fellow animals, Buck learns rapidly that the harsh but fair laws of nature control the destinies of men and dogs. The howling of wolves in the forest and several encounters where Buck must fight and even kill his foes awaken primal instincts, but the stupidity and carelessness of greedy humans almost does Buck in.
Rutger Hauer as John Thornton, Buck’s bearish friend in the wilderness, heads the fine cast, which includes Luc Morissette as the French-Canadian courier who first treats Buck with kindness.
Portrayed in the past by Clark Gable and Charlton Heston, Hauer’s character is a dreamer and a survivor. When he saves Buck from a group of desperate gold-seekers and sure death, the injured dog learns of the power of love.
Proud of his new friend, loner Thornton wins a big bet in town when Buck pulls a heavily loaded sled. The pair then go in search of a lost gold mine. Buck’s ultimate embracing of the wild life is beautifully evoked, but the kill-or-be-killed laws of the north are brutal.
Prague-born director Svatek (“Witchboard: The Possession”), who was raised and still lives in Montreal, and cinematographer Sylvain Brault provide many memorable scenes in the well-realized project.