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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

CALL OF THE WILD -- DVD review by porfle

Though I don't remember all that much about Jack London's novel, CALL OF THE WILD, it quickly becomes apparent that this TV-movie, culled from the two-part pilot for a series that ran for 13 episodes back in 2000, has little or nothing to do with the original story of a trapper named John Thornton and his beloved sled dog, Buck, who answered the "call of the wild" after the man's death and became the leader of a wolf pack. Nick Mancuso plays a character named John Thornton, a former guide now settled down with a family and running the town's trading post. But here, he neither knows Buck nor is he dead.

The snowy Yukon setting is the same, though. Filmed on scenic Vancouver locations, this is the story of a turn-of-the-century frontier town and the trappers, prospectors, and other characters who inhabit it. Miles Challenger (Shane Meier) is a young man who lives with his mother, Adoley (Rachel Hayward) and stepfather, John Thornton. Thornton is determined that Miles finish school, but the boy is in a hurry to grow up and wants to become a guide as soon as possible.

Miles' life is changed when he first encounters an amazing sled dog named Buck. The first half of the movie tells of his unsuccessful attempt to buy Buck at a sled dog auction, losing out to a mail carrier named Swede. During their first run together, Buck tangles with Swede's vicious lead dog, Spitz, and almost dies while dragging Swede and the other dogs to safety after a terrible snowstorm. The second half finds Swede forced to sell Buck to some traveling tenderfeet from the city, the Levants. Miles takes on the job as their guide so that he can care for the still-recovering Buck, but finds his survival skills put to the ultimate test when the spoiled, irresponsible Levants get a whiff of gold along the way and carelessly lead the party into grave danger.

Shane Meier (THE MATTHEW SHEPARD STORY), who at 15 played Clint Eastwood's young son in UNFORGIVEN, now plays the 15-year-old Miles at age 23. So he's definitely adept at appearing younger than he really is. Meier is a good actor who's convincing in the role of a headstrong, yet conscientious youth who must learn from his mistakes. The rest of the characters are well-cast, especially Miles' stepfather, Thornton--as a Nick Mancuso fan from all the way back to his 1979 horror flick NIGHTWING, I'm always happy to see him in a good role. In a brief epilogue, Hugh O'Brian makes a welcome appearance as the older Miles. And, as dog performers go, Buck himself is pretty awesome--he should definitely win some kind of doggy Oscar for this.

The DVD features a standard full-screen image with Dolby Digital sound. Extras consist of a trailer, previews of other Allumination Filmworks releases, and Spanish subtitles. The film is enhanced by lush cinematography and a heroic score which suggests that composer Hal Beckett is an Elmer Bernstein fan.

This is pretty solid family-friendly entertainment for a TV pilot, with a rich sense of period authenticity and fine production values. The ill-fated journey of Miles and the Levants is particularly exciting and suspenseful, ending with a perilous attempt to cross the cracking ice of a not-quite-frozen river. If you're a sucker for this kind of atmospheric, Jack London-inspired Yukon adventure stuff like I am, CALL OF THE WILD is well worth curling up with on a cold, snowy night. Or whatever your local weather happens to be at the moment.

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