MOVIE BUFF-ET: Ford gives sturdy performance in family film ‘‘The Call of the Wild’

Harrison Ford in The Call of the Wild / Twentieth Century Fox

The latest film version of “The Call of the Wild” isn’t a perfect adaption of the classic 1903 Jack London novel, but it is an entertaining and touching all-ages film that basically gives the story the classic Disney treatment.

By classic Disney treatment, I don’t mean the dogs actually speak or burst into song like the animals in any number of the studio’s animated features like “The Jungle Book,” “Robin Hood,” or “The Lion King,” because they don’t.

However, the dogs and other animals in the film are CGI-animated and are given slightly anthropomorphized personalities to tell the story of Buck, the St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix, who is stolen from the pampered ownership of the Judge Miller family in California and sold to become a sled dog in the Yukon during the Klondike gold rush.

Actually the film shares more of a bond with the live-action nature and adventure films Disney turned to in the 1960s and ‘70s to great success. Obviously with Disney’s success, other studios copied the formula with films like “A Challenge to Be Free” or “The Wilderness Family” series from the 1970s.

Michael Green’s screenplay both heightened and to a degree softens the story of Buck and his final owner John Thornton (Harrison Ford), a man who fled to the wilds of Alaska to deal with the early death of his only son.

The film doesn’t dodge the novel’s themes of rugged maturation and impending death, but they aren’t presented quite as savagely as in the novel. The screenplay adds more daring do by Buck than in the novel with him rescuing mail carrier Francois (Cara Gee) after falling into an iced over river. Shortly thereafter, Buck, using the call of the wild as a guide, leads his sled team in outmaneuvering an avalanche.

But, hey, I’m no Jack London purist. I greatly enjoyed those scenes even if they cost the film some of its realism. Again, this adaptation, directed by Chris Sanders (“Lilo and Stitch” and “How To Train My Dragon”), is more of a fairy tale than straight drama, which necessitates some liberties with the source material.

Speaking of realism or a lack there of, the CGI in the film isn’t limited to the animals. Much of the scenery is enhanced by the magic of computer-generated imagery, and it certainly isn’t seamlessly realistic, but I’m not even sure if Sanders was attempting to make it so. For some, that will be a distraction. For me it wasn’t a bother, especially considering the how fantastic the film looked thanks to camera work of Oscar-winner Janusz Kaminski.

The movie had me thrilled from the slap-schtick work in the film’s opening until the its poignant conclusion.

Ford gives a sturdy and winning performance as Thornton, and his understated tone worked well as the film’s narrator. It’s nice to see Ford’s charisma at work again on the big screen as the grizzled prospector who saves Buck and in turn is saved by the dog, whose motion-capture role was performed by stunt coordinator Terry Notary.

Omar Sy as the lead mail carrier Perrault is a bright light in the film. His boundless enthusiasm and optimism plays well off Gee’s more cynical character.

The film’s greatest flaw, though, is the cartoonish performance by Dan Stevens as Hal, a tenderfoot villain who just doesn’t get how dangerously inexperienced he is. He doesn’t twirl his mustache, but each time he’s on screen, you’re waiting for him to do so. Stevens’ outlandish interpretation of the material is out of touch with the rest of the picture.

The movie does have its, faults but I had a great time watching it, and think it’s a fine piece of family entertainment that plays most of the right notes. The movie hits the target for the family and pre-teen audience, although it might be a bit too earnest for the teen and twenties set.

(PG) 1 hr. 50 min.
Grade: B

New In Local Movie Theaters

  • The Call of the Wild(PG) 1 hr. 50 min. (watch trailer)
    Playing at: AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Rogers Towne, Bentonville Skylight
  • Brahms: The Boy II(PG-13) 1 hr. 25 min. (watch trailer)
    Playing at: AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle Hills

Classic Corner – The Color Purple

Oprah Winfrey and Willard E. Pugh in The Color Purple / Warner Bros.

Remember when Steven Spielberg was still considered a “popcorn director” whose genre work like “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” was considered too de rigueur to be considered Oscar-worthy.

It’s so easy to forget that for the longest Spielberg wasn’t highly regarded as a filmmaker despite churning out blockbuster after blockbuster that are now considered classics.

However his 1985 film “The Color Purple” changed all that.

Sure, the film, which was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, was shut out at the Oscars, and some critics deemed the film too stereotypical and overly sentimental, but the movie, which brilliantly adapted Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, proved to be a box-office success as well as a beloved and empowering classic that has stood the test of time.

The movie tells the struggle of young black teen, Celie (Whoppi Goldberg) and her dysfunctional family throughout the course of their lives, and how overtime Celie not only endures but triumphs.

The film introduced Oprah Winfrey and made a star of Goldberg. It also features a strong supporting performance by Danny Glover and an early appearance by Laurence Fishburne.

In celebration of the movie’s 35th anniversary, the Malco Razorback Cinema in Fayetteville will have showings of the film at 1 and 5 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 23.