May 24, 2020 – This somewhat cartoonish live-action version of the 1903 Jack London book plays like a cross between a Marmaduke cartoon and “North to Alaska” (1960). Harrison Ford is the latest actor to play the role of John Thornton, a role earlier played by the likes of Clark Gable, Charleton Heston, Rutger Hauer and Ricky Schroder.
While the story very loosely follows the original Jack London plot, the dog, Buck, this time is not played by a real dog, but by an artificial construct created by computer animation aided by motion capture technology. The result of this technique is an anthropomorphised dog that doesn't quite look enough like a real dog to be convincing.
Watching this non-dog in action with his human-like expressions, it's movements appeared to be human-like, as though it was a man inside a dog costume. The movements of the dog's front paws in some scenes look more like the movements of human arms and hands. I did a little research, and the film does indeed use a man, a motion capture actor named Terry Notary, in place of the dog as a reference point. Notary also appears in the movie as a rail worker.
This artificial dog seems even more artificial because of its human-like intelligence and human-like facial expressions. The dog aside, the rest of the film is fairly realistic-looking. It was filmed in California, British Columbia and in the Yukon, where scenes of the Yukon gold rush of the late 1890s is recreated, especially a long line of prospectors ascending the Chilkoot Pass, made famous by old photographs.
Buck starts out as the spoiled dog of a rich man in California, before being kidnapped and sold for use in a dog sled team delivering mail in the Yukon Territory. Here, he learns about confidence, teamwork and leadership. He defeats the dogsled team leader in battle and takes over the team. When the mail route is eliminated, Buck is sold again.
Buck and his team are sold to a cruel and ignorant man, Hal (played by Dan Stevens of “The Man Who Invented Christmas”) who is looking for gold in the Yukon. He and his party are doomed, but Buck survives with the aid of a local man, John Thornton (Harrison Ford) an alcoholic broken by the death of his son, living in self-imposed exile.
After Buck is rescued by John, the dog returns the favor by rescuing John emotionally from his depression and weaning him from his steady diet of liquor. Inspired by Buck and his late son's dream of exploring the Yukon, John and Buck set off for their own adventure in the wilds of the far north, where man and dog each finds his destiny and place in the world.
The basic story works pretty well, although the character of Hal, equal parts competent and incompetent, relentlessly and improbably seeking vengeance for a perceived slight, seems way over the top. Hal's place in the story represents a significant departure from the original story written by Jack London. Part of the reason for this change is probably because of the need to find a villain that satisfies modern notions of political correctness.
If this movie is the best adaptation of the book extant, it is disappointing. As many times as this story has been made into a movie (about 10 movies so far) a better adaptation should exist, but I don't know if it does, since I have not seen the others. This one rates a C.
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