MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Friday, February 21st. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Myrna Brown.
MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: a warm and engaging adventure story for dog lovers of all ages.
As I walked out of the latest adaptation of The Call of the Wild I wondered if maybe I’d misremembered Jack London’s classic novel, a favorite from my childhood. Maybe my 11-year-old heart had only raced to the poetic savagery because my life was so comfortable and safe by comparison. As an adult, maybe I’d look back and find the first wide-eyed glimpse London had given me into the brutal reality of the natural world was really just a ho-hum affair. Maybe it just seemed astonishing because my childish mind had never encountered fictional animals behaving as anything other than cuddly Disney sidekicks.
CLIP: The Yukon is a dangerous place. You never know what’s coming. I came up here because I didn’t want to be around anyone. And then I met Buck.
A quick skim through a well-worn copy now living on my daughter’s bookshelf assures me that’s not the case. London’s novel is still muscular as ever. More so, really, because so few stories today accept the harshness of fallen creation on its own terms.
So think of the new movie more as the Call of the Mild—fun, all-ages entertainment very much in keeping with a PG rating.
CLIP: Are They Broken? I promised you, didn’t I? And here we are. You promised me gold. Where is it? In the dogs? [Laughs] And mush! [Barking] Mush! Are they broken?
Your runners are frozen. You’ll help your dogs a mighty lot if you take the gee pole and break them out. Gee pole? Where you headed, mister? None of your concern. You didn’t buy that map in Skagway, did you? No. That old fairy tale. Lost cabin. River of gold.
The general beats are still there. Pampered half-St. Bernard, half-Scotch collie Buck is kidnapped from Judge Miller’s sun-drenched ranch in the Santa Clara Valley and shipped off for frozen adventure in the Yukon. He’s still beaten into submission by the man in the red sweater. Well, here he’s more threatened than beaten, but he still learns the law of club and fang. He just does it in the guise of one of those much sweeter Disney dogs.
Rather than rise to the front of the sled-dog pack by tapping into his innate animal ruthlessness, this Buck becomes top dog by being a nice guy. He sympathetically releases a rabbit rather than devouring it. And not only does he not steal his packmate’s fish dinner, he shares his own.
CLIP: I lost my lead dog. We’ll be two days behind if we’re lucky and we’ve never been lucky. You might want to hold on. Yeah, yeah. And mush!
Even Buck’s awakening to the untamed wolf within is sweet. It’s not a wild brother that draws him away from human companionship but a pretty white-haired sister.
If it sounds like I’m saying this is a bad thing, it’s not necessarily. Harrison Ford turns in a wonderfully gruff but tender performance as prospector John Thornton, the man Buck truly loves. And the CGI canines still capture a mystery second only to the love of a man for a maid: the love of a dog for his master.
CLIP: We Could Go Come here. This is a map of the Yukon. My son was always reading adventure stories. He was crazy about the news coming out of the Yukon. Wasn’t the gold. He didn’t care about that. It was the mountains. He spent all day looking at maps and pictures of the mountains—dreaming about what was on the other side. Places no one had been. Wild places. We could go. You and me—see what’s out there.
This is a kinder, gentler and often more fantastical introduction to the story. Like when Buck pulls off feats of daring that would put 007 to shame. But it’s lovely all the same. I’d challenge anyone’s heart not to break when half-starved mutts shuffle off to likely doom. Or not to melt at Buck’s faithful service even as another, more instinctive power pulls him. Or not to chuckle at his playful puppy games.
Humans have instincts too and getting a bit misty about the eyes at the purity of soul displayed by our four-legged friends usually tops that list.
So while this Call of the Wild may not be the stuff classics are made of, it still makes for very fine, old-fashioned family entertainment. It’s as earnest, upright, and lovable as an old hound. And there’s little doubt kids in the audience will laugh, gasp, and hug their own pups a little a tighter when they get home.
And if, when the sweetness is all over, you find yourself thinking a bit wistfully of the original tale’s sharper bite. Take comfort. When it comes to stories that capture the stark beauty and harsh reality of the wild, we’ll always have London.