while we have seen plenty of animals animated in a realistic-looking way, people are so familiar with dogs and how they move that seeing one anthropomorphized in this fashion consistently takes you out of the story, making the sense of emotional manipulation that goes into every “Aww” moment that much more acute.
Directed by animation veteran Chris Sanders from Michael Green’s screenplay, the movie thus falls somewhere in a no-man’s — or really, no-dog’s — land, often feeling more animated than live-action. The obvious artifice undercuts any tension, despite beautiful scenery and a musical score that works overtime to build excitement.
For those a little fuzzy on the details of their eighth-grade reading list, the story focuses on Buck, who is dognapped from his happy home and shipped off to the Yukon, where the 1890s Klondike rush has created serious demand for big dogs capable of pulling sleds.
Abused and frightened, Buck finds his place with a team delivering mail — occupying a sizable portion of the movie — before he’s eventually adopted by John Thornton (Ford, whose presence is beefed up by serving as the narrator of Buck’s story).
Thornton saves Buck from a ruthless gold-seeker (“Downton Abbey’s” Dan Stevens, utterly wasted), and nursing his own emotional wounds, forges a strong bond with the beast. Yet their travels deep into the woods also bring Buck into contact with a pack of wolves, tapping into a primal longing more befitting his canine nature.
There has always been a strong notion of the natural world in the book, and that part of the film comes through loud and clear. But Buck’s almost magical qualities — including his ability to sense and address the man’s pain — ratchets that up to absurd heights, meaning you really, really have to be eager to give in to this movie on its terms in order to feel much of anything watching it.