When I was in 7th grade, I had to do a book report on the 1903 Jack London novel. As I read it, I started losing interest fast. And then I did that move kids did when they didn’t want to finish a book — I skimmed through it trying to find key paragraphs I could throw into my report to show I read it.
So I’m not sure how faithful the movie is to the original story. I’m sure they softened it up to make a more family-friendly film. (I read two other London books years later and loved them, but remember a lot of violence and whiskey in them.) There’s a little of both in this, which gives it a PG rating, but it’s the perfect family-friendly film for all ages. I adored almost every second of it.
I was surprised to see the movie wasn’t getting as much love as it should, and a cursory glance at some critics’ comments, shows that they weren’t impressed with the CGI dog. And while it’s true that for a movie that spent $125 million, perhaps it could’ve looked better. My wife said during the movie, “I wish they would have just used a real dog.”
Well, you couldn’t get a real dog to do the things done in this, especially the subtle but expressive emotions.
The story involves Buck, a huge mutt that wreaks havoc (in a lovingly fun way) on a judge’s rich family, so they’re often making him sleep outside to “think about what he’s done!”
Someone that sees an ad for money paid for dogs (this is during the Gold Rush, when sled dogs are prized), steals the dog from the judge. You assume the dog will find his way back, but as he’s tied up and part of a mush team, you realize that probably won’t happen. At least the dog has a new owner (Omar Sy, the French actor that was great in The Intouchables) that, despite working him hard, seems to care about Buck and the other canines.
Harrison Ford isn’t the best actor around (I swear, when he has to smile on screen, it always looks difficult for him; I first noticed that in his brief scene in The Conversation in the mid-70s). But he often picks rolls that work well for him. And here, the gray, grizzled look…and his sadness and caring for the canine, are perfect. His John Thornton starts off narrating the picture, and only shows up in a few brief scenes. But he’s in all of the second half (I won’t spoil how he finds his way into the film). It’s a rather sensitive, soulful performance, that’s going to make Chewbacca jealous.
Thornton lost his son, and seems content to spend his days drinking. Do you think the Buck will help him with his sorrow? Well, even though this St. Bernard mix isn’t one that has a barrel of booze around his neck (and actually helps him give up the drink), they form a tight bond that will have you tear up a few times.
Director Chris Sanders didn’t impress me with Lilo & Stitch, but had solid stuff in the animated films How to Train Your Dragon, Mulan, and the underrated The Croods. He’s working with a screenplay from Michael Green, that smartly leaves out the savage Indians from the book. I’m guessing they also left off a lot of the searching for gold, as that’s only mentioned a few times by a couple of characters (one being the villain [Dan Stevens], that’s a bit over-the-top).
The cinematography and score add a lot to the picture, and it helps that I’m a sucker for dogs. But even if you’re not, this is the movie you should take the whole family to this weekend.
3 ½ stars out of 5.