If you are looking for a wonderful family adventure film, this is one to put on your list. Based on the classic book by Jack London, Michael Green adapts an engaging screenplay directed by Chris Sanders, one that brings the adventure-ridden dog, Buck, to life with amazing CGI technology. As a result, this adaptation is true to London’s creative story-telling abilities since it is told through the eyes of Buck, a house pet-turned-sled dog during the Gold Rush of 1890s in the Canadian Yukon.
The story follows Buck, a powerful Saint Bernard/Scotch Collie mix breed as he bumbles along in the house and around the ranch of the Miller Family in Santa Clara Valley, California. Buck is kidnapped and sold to strangers at the railway station for a large amount of cash. He is shipped off to Seattle in a wooden crate half-starved and mistreated. He attacks the perpetrators, but is trained by being beaten with a club, cowering before that ominous object. He is eventually sold to some French-Canadian mail dispatchers, Perrault (Omar Sy) and Françoise (Cara Gee) who bring Buck to Alaska to become part of their team of sled dogs who help deliver mail to the far outposts of the Alaskan and Yukon tundra. Buck, at first, can’t keep up with the pack and fumbles along leading Françoise to say he is broken, to which Perrault responds, “He’s not broken. He’s just got California feet.”
When Buck finds his footing the sled team become unbeatable making it in record time to deliver their mail, which is one of the most touching scenes of the film. We forget in our age of instant digital technology, that the only way of receiving news of loved ones was through those letters. It showed the powerful force communication has on human beings. To this very importance, Perrault says, “We don’t carry mail. We carry lives. We carry hope. We carry love.” The power of communication to touch hearts and minds was so beautifully represented here.
Omar Sy as Perrault with Buck. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox © 2020.
As in any group, two alpha males do not mix. Such is the case with the lead dog of the pack and Buck. After being beaten down by the leader, Buck overpowers him and quickly becomes the leader of the pack. He has finally found his footing in the cold, rough terrain of the Northwest through which they travel the many perils of nature.
When Perrault and Françoise complete the trip with their team arriving in Skagway, Alaska, they receive orders from the Canadian government to sell their sled and return to Canada. Left in the kennels, Buck and the rest of the team are bought by some inexperienced and cruel American settlers. John Thornton (Harrison Ford), a seasoned outdoorsman with a tragic history, sees them mistreat the dogs and recognizes Buck from an earlier chance encounter and steps in telling the Americans to not go ahead because of the ice melt the river is too unstable. They go ahead regardless. Through tortuous terrain and without much food, the dogs become exhausted, but Hall (Dan Stevens), their leader, whips the dogs into moving forward. In true Harrison Ford-style, Thornton comes out of nowhere to confront Hal and cuts Buck loose from the sled. Unfortunately, the rest of the team mushes forward with Hal and his companions into peril. Thornton saves Buck. Their relationship is cemented.
Thornton brings Buck home. However, he mourns his deceased son and drinks heavily which Buck looks upon disapprovingly. Because his son always wanted to go on a trip to the “wild country” Thornton takes Buck on their adventure into the wild. Finding a small cabin in the mountains, Thornton fixes it up and stays there for the season. Buck begins to hear the call of his ancestors and takes off during the day connected with a pack of wolves, only to return to Thornton at night. It is in the wild that Thornton faces his grief and the gift that is life, while Buck discovers his true calling. Thornton reflects in a voiceover, “I knew him (Buck) when he was just a dog at a man’s side before he went to his own, before he became his own master, before he heard the call.”
Harrison Ford as Thornton with Buck. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox © 2020.
This story has endured more than a century because of its coming-of-age quality that, “Gives people something to hold onto…there are surprises in life and we have to navigate them…pick ourselves up when we fall down,” says the director Chris Sanders. Ford reflects on the depth of this story when he says, “Resilience is a gift and the human spirit is indomitable. It is a gift of nature, of God…it is the source of life.” This story brings out the best of the human person and the best of nature. Even though the story has us look at life through the eyes of Buck, we feel the struggle, the pain, the heartache of being far from home, of being mistreated, and finally finding the place to belong. It is in the human spirit to find that peace and to be, “in tune with nature,” as Gee says reflecting on her indigenous background. This story calls us back to what is really important in life and we get that all because of a bumbly big dog named Buck.
Sanders says that this is a film for a family audience but one that does not skimp on energy and emotion. It brings the classic London story to life with incredible delight, feeling, and purpose.