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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Call of the Wild is a family-friendly adaptation of Jack London's classic novel. Starring Harrison Ford, it's a simpler, somewhat sanitized take on the book -- which makes it more appropriate for younger viewers -- but the themes and messages of London's story are still as crisp as a Yukon sunrise. Canine hero Buck and his friends are often in peril; the dogs escape it, but humans, not always. Buck suffers one significant hit from a human on-screen, and additional animal abuse is implied through taunts, the sound and verbal acknowledgement of a whip, and seeing dogs passed out, pushed beyond their limit. Ford's character, John Thornton, stands up to Buck's owner about this cruel treatment, and Buck stands up to his pack's alpha dog, Spitz, who also behaves with bullying behavior. There's an epic dog fight as a result, but both animals end up fine (the same unfortunately can't be said for a cute rabbit that's killed by a mean dog). The movie is set on the frontier, where the saloon is the center of the community. Alcohol flows, but drinking is negatively portrayed, and Buck actually teaches temperance. The theme of this story has always been that life is a two-sided coin: You'll encounter the good with the bad, the great with the terrible, moments of danger and moments of security. Life is unfair, but it's also what you make of it, with new beginnings and final endings. And through the eyes of a CGI dog set against gorgeous scenery, it's an exhilarating family experience with themes of courage, perseverance, and teamwork.
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What's the story?
Adapted from Jack London's classic 1903 novel, THE CALL OF THE WILD is set in the Yukon during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush. The story centers on a St. Bernard/Scotch Collie dog named Buck who was stolen from his family and sent to work as a sled dog. When experienced outdoorsman John Thornton (Harrison Ford) comes across the ill-treated Buck, the man saves the dog's life, and they go on the adventure of a lifetime together through some of the most beautiful terrain in the world.
Is it any good?
Literary purists may find this take on London's classic a bit too much of a departure from the novel, but for families, it's a beautiful film about the rough and rewarding path that is life. More than a century after London wrote his tale of a spoiled dog who's abducted to work in the Yukon, audiences don't need coaching to understand that mistreating animals is wrong, and filmmakers are very unlikely to put images of animal cruelty on the big screen. But at the same time, the "emotional dog movie" has become its own genre of late, with Hollywood releasing two or three films a year that use canines to teach us how to be human. Unlike most of those other films, The Call of the Wild -- thankfully -- gives us a hero dog who doesn't die. And there's so much to be gained from the lessons Buck learns, lessons that could be unfamiliar to some of today's more insulated kids: Life is unfair, but if you lean in rather than check out, you'll conquer its arduous but rewarding journey.
In fact, life at the turn of the 20th century was so different from life in 2020 that the film provides for -- if not requires -- thoughtful conversations with kids about issues both moral and factual. (Get ready to be asked why Canadians are running the mail service in Alaska -- the answer, of course, is because the Yukon is not in Alaska.) On the other hand, kids might tell you all about the gold rush, if it's something they've learned about in school. The fact that the film relies on computer-animated animals is also worthy of examining. The movie industry has been woken up to the idea that using animals in TV and films may not be ethical: Even when they're treated well, humans are still forcing animals to work without their consent. Since The Call of the Wild is about dogs being forced to work, sometimes under brutal, life-threatening conditions, it was a good call to use computer-generated creatures rather than face allegations of hypocrisy. Yes, you may be constantly aware that these dogs aren't the real deal, but they're so expressive, and they can wordlessly communicate with the audience. Ford, on the other hand, is as authentic as they come. In playing John Thornton, he's given us the guy we believe him to be: a little cranky, a little wise, and a whole lot of wonderful.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how mainstream views on the treatment of animals have changed since the time The Call of the Wild takes place. How does seeing cruelty against Buck and other animals affect you? Does it have more of an impact than action scenes? Why or why not?
How do you feel about adapting a classic story in a way that makes it tamer or more appropriate for younger, modern-day kids and families?
In Jack London's novel, Francois is a man whose heritage is unclear. For the film, he's transformed into a First Nations woman (played by Cara Gee) who's specifically from the tribe that invented dog sledding and that did have female mushers. Gee is also Native Canadian. Why are authenticity and representation important?
What did the black wolf signify? In what ways do you tap into your "primitive self" or follow your intuition?
- In theaters: February 21, 2020
- On DVD or streaming: May 12, 2020
- Cast: Harrison Ford, Karen Gillan, Dan Stevens
- Director: Chris Sanders
- Studio: 20th Century Fox
- Genre: Family and Kids
- Topics: Adventures, Book Characters, Cats, Dogs, and Mice, Wild Animals
- Character strengths: Courage, Perseverance, Teamwork
- Run time: 105 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: some violence, peril, thematic elements and mild language
- Awards/Honors: Common Sense Selection
- Last updated: December 1, 2020
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Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.
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