Jack London’s 1903 Yukon-set adventure novel has been adapted for screen on numerous occasions. Various versions have starred, among others, Clark Gable, Charlton Heston, Richard Dreyfuss and now Harrison Ford in the role of grizzled prospector John Thornton. They have also, until now, generally featured a dog in the role of Buck, the pampered Californian pet who is stolen and sold to haul a sled in the frozen north.
However, in this slick Disney version of the story, Buck is a CGI creation, crafted around a motion-capture performance by Terry Notary (perhaps best known as the rampaging man-ape in Ruben Östlund’s The Square). The appeal to the film-makers of using CGI rather than real dogs is no mystery: it offers a far greater degree of control; it tames some of the more inconvenient wildness. The Hollywood truism warns “never work with animals…” after all.
But from the moment Buck lollops on to the screen, it becomes clear something essential has been lost. A man in a digital dog suit might be easier to direct, but he’s giving a human performance rather than a canine one. The film works best if considered as a highly sophisticated blend of live action and animation. Taken as such, it should please family audiences; it’s a handsomely mounted, stirring adventure. It’s just a little bit declawed.