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‘The Call of the Wild’ Is the Rare Good Argument for CGI

Rather than technology for technology’s sake, the animation in the Harrison Ford–led movie about a dog rediscovering his true nature is profoundly deliberate

Walt Disney Pictures/Ringer illustration

In a surprising turn of events, the development of CGI technology in cinema is currently reinforcing age-old tensions between animal species—The Call of the Wild convincingly argues yet again that dogs are simply better than Cats. Computers decidedly were not meant to make the world a more harmonious place. Or were they?

Chris Sanders’s 2020 adaptation of the famous Jack London story of a domesticated dog reconnecting with his instinctive animal side begins in the typically joyous film version of the 1890s American South. Bradley Whitford, who would have voted for Obama three times in Get Out, suitably plays the sympathetic rich owner of Buck, our hero. Buck is a gigantic Saint Bernard–Scotch collie mix who spends his days clumsily running between friendly humans and demolishing their lavish Sunday lunches. Despite the lighthearted tone of this classic crazy dog routine, the dog vs. plantation wealth clash already hints at a deeper problem. Buck isn’t made for this life of satisfied, man-made excess and quiet exploitation, and these humans are incapable of understanding the ways of nature that drive their dog. Something’s got to give.

It is by getting captured by much more brutally inconsiderate humans that Buck begins his journey toward his natural self: The ruthless men teach Buck the “law of the club and fang,” beating him into obedience and reinstating in his mind a clear difference between man and dog. It’s not a subtle lesson, but this drastic approach hints at how strongly London felt about the usurpation of nature by man: Whether it is done softly through treats and shelter, or violently with chains and clubs, man’s taming of a dog is always a perversion. And it’s by having Buck “played” by Terry Notary (the ape-man in Ruben Ostlund’s The Square) through motion-capture in an entirely computer-generated landscape that Sanders makes his audience connect with nature, too. Unlike Tom Hooper with his giant prop spoons and dinner tables, Sanders and his expert team of designers recreated the Yukon forests and snowy mountains through CGI, the better to emphasize their cinematic beauty.

It’s a risky bet: A recent iteration of Sonic the Hedgehog had human features that were all too human, and the recent actually-not-live-action Lion King remake didn’t improve on the original’s fantastic hand-drawn visuals. But The Call of the Wild’s modern tactic resonates with a less cynical, more profound self-awareness. By employing advanced virtual technology to depict the über-natural, the film maintains a respectful and admirative distance from this endangered world—CGI can at once enhance the thrilling beauty of northern lights or the shocking speed of a dog sled charging through snow, while at the same time avoid damaging the real terrain of Northern Canada. Watching these gorgeous vistas change with the seasons through a seamless time lapse à la (but better than) Forrest Gump, I was reminded of the ecological disaster that was Danny Boyle’s The Beach, another film arguably intent on celebrating untouched nature but during the filming of which corals and beaches were seriously damaged (until a tsunami restored them years later; nature can’t count on us and has to do everything itself). It’s easy to get sarcastic about the purpose of CGI technology, but it has the potential to make cinema more sustainable and to act as a reminder of what’s at stake. In these images of a dog pursuing a wild rabbit in the immaculate snow, the absence of real nature is blinding, sending the alarming message that these landscapes may soon be only a virtual reality.

The images’ artificiality also allows Sanders to keep Buck’s rising animal instincts tolerable for his underage audience without compromising on the cruelty of nature. When the leader of the sled on which Buck finds himself attached becomes annoyed with the new recruit’s popularity, their confrontation more so resembles a wrestling match than a savage dogfight. Their body language also gains psychological significance as a single look reveals who’s got power over the other. The anthropomorphism doesn’t go too far, however, and the humans in Buck’s life remain the most viciously violent. The as-ever heartbreaking power of dog movies, where the vulnerable devotion of man’s best friend is often rewarded with nothing but human barbarism or neglect, is at play here. Try to stay calm when Hal, an urban gold-hungry man (Dan Stevens, who has fun playing a stereotypically angry villain) buys Buck’s sled and uses force to get the dogs moving.

Some men, however, hear the call too. Before even meeting him (yes, you can meet a dog), Buck occasionally has the same facial expressions as Harrison Ford, who plays John Thornton, a man who has become a recluse out of grief for his son. Like Buck, he can no longer function in human society, and together they engage on a journey that is less adventurous than it is spiritual. The original short story’s supposedly heroic but actually problematic racial politics have been replaced by a focus on the humane (rather than human) side of Thornton’s story. It is by making the dog his docile companion that, paradoxically again, Thornton leads Buck to his true nature; and it is also through this domestic relationship that Thornton himself is able to access what truly matters to him—namely, being one with the world. The film doesn’t go so far as to state that Thornton reconnects with nature because his late son has been reincarnated, but Ford plays Thornton as a man who had not expected to find any place where he could belong anymore. The realization that nature still accepted his presence, through the land but also through Buck, helps Thornton find peace and, similarly to the gold-digging segment in the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, makes it clear that the beauty of the environment isn’t in its extractable resources, but in its caring for all species.

Not all men, however, are ready to relinquish their greed—for money or for dominance over others, be they humans or animals—to live in a more balanced world. The Call of the Wild is a kids movie about a dog, but it doesn’t sugarcoat the harsh reality that our planet has suffered under the rule of men. Sitting in a theater to watch a celebratory recreation of nature, it is difficult not to feel shame for how long we have abused what the earth has made available to us—what we didn’t even have to imagine or generate with a computer.

Manuela Lazic is a French writer based in London who primarily covers film.