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New Movie Lacks the Song of the Pack

The Caninologist

Buck, the central canine character in Jack London’s classic tale of the Yukon and doggie self-discovery, comes off as a lovable teddy bear of a pooch in the latest film version of The Call of the Wild.

It’s a travesty, what these filmmakers do to this 140-pound St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix. All the blood and gristle — the “joy to kill” — in London’s famous adventure story are gone.

One reason The Call of the Wild has endured for almost 120 years is the potency of London’s central theme, which is that a dark spirit is at the core of nature and will reassert itself when the opportunity arises. The primacy of teeth and claws and all that may not be apparent in our soft civilized world. But once the artificiality of human society gets stripped away, the true nature of things creeps back. And, perhaps even more important, the impact of human society only makes the newly feral creatures even stronger and more cunning.

There are a million variants of this ancient story. In The Call of the Wild, it happens when Buck finds himself part of a sled dog team that has to do things like fight for its life against a gang of starving huskies, which wander over from an Indian camp when the smell of food wafts their way.

Buck and his new pack mates are up to any challenge. In one of the first of many violent episodes, London has the fight wind down this way: “Buck got a frothing adversary by the throat, and was sprayed with blood when his teeth sank through the jugular. The warm taste of it in his mouth goaded him to greater fierceness.”

Now, in the new kiddie version on screen, there’s no sign of blood. The juiciest scene happens when the CGI dog slobbers on the Harrison Ford character’s harmonica, which, by the way, the dog somehow plays better than the man.

Even in an era when kids are watching Texas chainsaw massacres, Buck never actually kills anything, other than a hapless salmon or pheasant, which the dog delivers to his master like a kitten dropping off a mouse. The bunny rabbits Buck likes to chase around are just comic relief. I don’t think a single one ever runs out of breath, let alone gets ripped to shreds. Everybody gets another chance.

Spitz, the nasty sled-dog team leader until our sanitized hero shows up, is one of the great devil dog characters of American literature. But even he doesn’t get his death scene here. He just gets embarrassed, and when he makes the mistake of targeting a weak old doggie-pal of Buck’s, he goes slinking off in the moonlight, beaten but hardly mangled.

In the real story, as you may recall, Buck becomes the “dominant primordial beast who had made his kill and found it good.”

That echo of the Book of Genesis, of course, is deliberate. But in the end, when the wolves and Yeehats enter the story, London really lets loose, and you get something pretty close to what happens when Homer’s Odysseus returns home, and he and his men clear out the castle, so to speak.

Still, I confess the movie is fun to watch, the same way it’s fun to watch Goofy jump down at the racetrack or Babe the Pig talk to a sheep. But if you want to hear the real “song of the pack,” you won’t find it here.

Carl T. Hall is a longtime union organizer in San Francisco who is now a co-owner of Word. A Café, now open for business in the Bayview Neighborhood. Readers can pick up copies of Bay Woof there.

Main article photo by: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox