There's been a sizable amount of controversy over the recent release and remake of 'The Call of the Wild,' as it pertains to its use of CGI for one of its lead characters — namely Buck.
For starters, the reviews of Chris Sanders' reincarnation of Jack London's iconic 1903 novel are mixed. At a $125 million-dollar price tag, there's a major hurdle to achieve its ROI (return on investment). As far as comparisons, it's up against the very popular and nostalgic William Wellman's 1935 film version of Buck. Its CGI creation competes with beloved real-life movie dog legends of the past, namely: Lassie, Benji, Old Yeller, Toto, Marley, Beethoven and Rin-Tin-Tim — to name a few.
Critics Barking up a Storm
The movie has just been released. I'm writing this post on its opening weekend, so I'm working with limited speculation as to how this movie's CGI will be remembered in cinematic history. However. there has been a series of reviews from credible sources that provides an early glimpse as to how this movie has been received to date:
- The Guardian: “The director here is Chris Sanders, who moves (partly) away from animation into the world of live-action mixed with CGI animals from the uncanny valley.”
- IndieWire: “Unfortunately, Buck’s eyes tell a different story. There’s a haunting, hyperreal quality to Buck’s expressive features, a queasy tension between accuracy and embellishment that . . . simply doesn’t add up, and only grows more unstable as Buck’s story takes flight.”
- Hollywood Reporter: “The results are visually disorienting . . . Buck never quite looks real. And you keep expecting him and the rest of the animals to burst into song.”
- USA Today: “The movie doesn’t use actual dogs and relies completely on photorealistic depictions, so while not risking putting real animals in potential danger, there’s potential for everything to look a little fake.”
- Rotten Tomatoes: As of this posting, the film holds an approval rating of 64% based on 121 reviews and an average rating of 6.08/10, as of this posting, which is a fair-to-midland rating.
In the United States and Canada, "The Call of the Wild" was released alongside "Brahms: The Boy II," and is projected to gross $15–20 million from 3,700 theaters in its opening weekend. It made $8 million on its first day, including $1 million from Thursday (2/21/2020) night's preview.
The studio is projecting an opening in the $15 million range. Compare that to another winter release, albeit with a real dog. “A Dog’s Way Home” from last January, debuted to $11.3 million after earning $535,000 in its previews. There’s also “A Dog’s Purpose,” which opened February 2017 and made $466,000 from Thursday night previews and ended up debuting to $18.2 million.
However, the film’s use of CGI to create its St. Bernard protagonist and its reported budget of $125 million, at this point in time makes profitability very unlikely.
While overall the reviews and ratings and Rotten Tomatoes are mixed, critics have debated over the spooky appearance of the CGI animals, especially when used with major characters. Making Buck look as realistic as possible was a gamble. For instance, many viewers agree he doesn't look like a real dog, and as such, this is very distracting. There's something that is slightly off. Some critics have gone so far to say he comes closer to a 'Scooby-Doo' than a Lassie,
Another factor is cost. At this juncture, CGI technology is costly. This makes the use of a CGI dog much more expensive than hiring a real-life dog for the part.
However, on the flip-side, CGI dogs can be much more entertaining. A CGI Buck is capable of performing super-natural stunts that a real dog could never replicate — and he doesn't need a stunt double to accomplish that feat.
The effect that's called the "uncanny valley" comes into play with CGI characters. The term means the look of a CGI performer looks just real enough to constantly remind you they don't have souls. One critic went so far to describe it: "at best the look is cartoonish, at worst, they look creepy."
The issue here is with a "Revenant" type of storyline, Buck's portrayal in the “Call of the Wild" requires a meaningful performance. And unfortunately, Buck's failure to do can be a constant distraction. [Note: I do feel this is a subjective critique on my part, and up for further review.]
W.C. Fields long ago cautioned Hollywood filmmakers to never work with children or animals, and the director of "Call of the Wild" seems to have taken that advice to a fault.
Buck wins with PETA & AHA
CGI Buck gets five stars with PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] — as evidenced by their movie review tweets. This animal rights group has long argued against the use of real animals on movie sets.
The American Humane Association actually trademarked the cinema industry's precautionary phrase: "No animals were harmed in the making of this film." "The Call of the Wild" can state they are 100% compliant with this requirement.
So as CGI technology becomes less costly and more commonplace, I'm sure the trend will be for moviemakers to use CGI human characters versus live actors. In fact, that's already been happening for years in various hybrid forms. Think about "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," "The Jungle Book," "300," "Sin City," and even a CGI Tom Hanks took the lead role in "The Polar Express."
Who knows, perhaps actors and actresses will have less role opportunities in the future when CGI replaces human actors? And I guess when a CGI actor actually wins an Oscar and shows up on the stage to accept it, that's when there will be a major shift in the movie industry.
Perhaps one will be presented by a CGI Oscar himself.
Primary Source: Variety