This is the story of Buck, a behemoth St. Bernard and Scotch shepherd mix, a sweet pup enjoying a life of dog luxury in California when he’s dognapped all the way up to the Yukon during the Klondike gold rush. First he’s conscripted into a dogsled team for a mail delivery service, running across Canada’s northern frozen tundras until the telegraph makes his work obsolete. Next he becomes companion to John Thornton (Harrison Ford) who takes him out to the Arctic Circle where Buck can rediscover his primal roots.
Devoted fans of the 1903 Jack London novel will notice that neither Buck nor his dog colleagues closely resemble their characters in the book. In fact, the other sled dogs are also largely mutts, not the traditional Husky, and their personalities seem based upon the seven dwarfs. I’m not sentimental about the book so I don’t really mind the liberties taken with the literature so much as I mind the liberties taken with dogs. Because for a movie about a dog, and several of his doggie friends, there are no actual dogs in the movie. They’re all CG. And not only are they computer-generated, their expressions, especially Buck’s, are hyper real. Cartoonish. So they look out of place and they make it harder for me to relate to their characters. Buck and his pals get into some real danger. And of course, even out in the wilds, man is always any animal’s greatest threat. It’s likely too scary for very young kids, and yet it didn’t move me half as much as you’d expect from a bleeding heart with a recently deceased, dearly beloved dog. Because Buck’s movements and responses never feel real.
I have a slightly smaller pack now, but even with three dogs I’m very familiar with their methods of communication. If you live with a dog or a cat, and many times even a smaller pet, a bunny or a bird, then you’re likely pretty good at reading their expressions. You know what a tentative paw means, or a head tilt, or a lowered tail. You don’t need some ridiculous CGI eyebrows giving you Scooby Doo vibes. The constant reminder that these dogs aren’t real dilutes the story’s warmth and reduces our interest and empathy.
Ford is pretty solid, especially since he was almost always completely alone, perhaps acting only opposite a tennis ball on a stick that he had to imagine was man’s best friend. There’s a good story under all the effects, I think, but much like Tammy Faye Bakker, the message is lost, and the only story reported is the bad makeup.