This movie has a lot going for it: A noble dog named Buck who is kidnapped, sold and sent to work as a sled dog during the Klondike gold rush of the late 1890s; gray-bearded Harrison Ford playing Thornton, the prospector who befriends Buck, and a beautiful and remote setting that few of us ever will see.
Unfortunately, none of it lives up to the story told in the book with the same title.
For starters, as many have noted, Buck is a computer-generated dog whose facial expressions and reactions feel more human than canine. In fact, all the animals in the film are CGI creations.
Second, the violence inflicted on Buck by men and another dog are dialed way back, and Buck’s strong character is established by more sentimentally appealing behavior — rescuing a woman who has fallen into the ice, chasing down another dog that that has killed a cute snow bunny, etc. In addition, Thornton is given a very sad backstory that Buck understands intuitively and addresses several times in a non-canine fashion.
Third, the beautiful setting isn’t real. Most of the movie was shot on film sets, and the outdoor backgrounds were stitched in later. This makes for some unintentional humor. When characters talk outside in the icy cold, there is no condensation on their breath. After Buck and Thornton go down a waterfall in their canoe, Buck’s fur is dripping wet, but Thornton’s shirt is dry. (This is known in the industry as bad continuity.) There is also a missed opportunity to show the dog shudder to get himself dry, which is very doglike and fun.
Fourth, Thornton and Buck settle into an abandoned prospector’s shack that just happens to be next to a river with — surprise! — many, many gold nuggets on the riverbed. How many abandoned shacks could there have been, especially in spots near rivers where nuggets of gold must have been found by earlier prospectors? (Bear in mind also that 100,000 fortune-hunting prospectors trekked up to the previously unpopulated Yukon after gold was discovered there in 1895.)
Fifth, the plot seems to have been tweaked to appeal to post-millennial values. Women characters are added in roles which would have been very unlikely at that time and in such a location. A Native American group whose actions would be unflattering has been replaced by a sloppy and effete prospector whose distinguishing characteristic is greed. Meanwhile Thornton throws many of his gold nuggets back into the river because he has “enough gold for groceries for life.” (Maybe the book Thornton was reading early on was Das Kapital, or maybe he was a very early Bernie Bro.)
This film was made at considerable cost — $100 million or more — and directed by animation specialist Chris Sanders (How to Train Your Dragon, Lilo and Stitch, etc.) It seems clearly to have been aimed at a family audience. The question is why it wasn’t made as straight-up animation, which would have been much less expensive and possibly more coherent.
Honestly, the Jack London book that inspired this film deserves more attention than the movie. If you read it in grade school, why not pick it up again?
Harrison Ford not only plays the prospector who met Buck when the dog got off the boat Skagway, but he also narrates the story, starting with Buck’s early life as a pampered dog at a judge’s home in California. Ford has an appealing voice and it is understandable that the filmmakers would want to make use of it, but there is no possible explanation for how he would know anything about Buck’s life before they met.
Also in the early part of the story, Buck’s kidnappers rip off his name collar and leave it on the ground in California when they force him into the box and onto the train to Seattle, from which he sent by boat the port at Skagway. How, then, did anybody in Alaska know the dog’s name was Buck?
These are the sorts of things that keep me awake at night.