Call of the Wild (2020) – Comprehensive Review

Transfiguring Adoption’s Overview:

Call of the Wild follows the adventures of Buck the dog as he finds himself thrust into new situations and on a journey of self-discovery, and the friends he makes along the way. It is a story of resilience as Buck has to face a number of dangerous and difficult situations and manages to come out the other side stronger, fiercely independent, and a kind friend and leader. The story is set in the Yukon Peninsula during the time of the gold rush and the scenery makes a breathtaking backdrop for the adventure. In addition, Buck and the other dogs in the movie are entirely CGI (though very realistic to the point that it’s hard to tell!) which enables the filmmakers to give Buck an even more expressive range of body language and facial expressions.

This film would be best suited for older children and teens who have already processed their trauma. Because of the nature of the adventure, the movie is filled with moments of moderate to intense peril and ‘edge-of-your-seat’ action sequences. Because of this it will likely be scary for younger children and especially intense viewing for those who have experienced trauma. In addition, Buck is frequently uprooted from his life and forced to change ‘families’ and homes, often with little-to-no warning which would likely be upsetting to children who have experienced similar situations.

** Spoilers Could Be Ahead **

How Is This Relevant To Adoption & Foster Care?

At first glance an action movie about a dog seems to have little relevance to foster care or adoption. However, the movie is full of themes and experiences that our children can find relatable. First and foremost, Buck’s living situation changes frequently, fueled by events outside of his control- a journey that foster and adoptive children can absolutely relate to. Buck is forcibly taken from his home and family and sold as a working dog where he is shipped to Alaska. Buck then becomes part of a sled dog team working for the postal service until his owner is forced to give him up. Then, Buck ends up with a cruel new master who often mistreats him and the rest of his ‘pack’ until finally being rescued by a lonely old man who takes Buck in and cares for him before ultimately sending him off into the world. Similarly, children in foster care are often taken from their biological family and then placed in one or more homes along the way- sometimes into good situations and sometimes not. And it is often with limited understanding of why these changes are occurring. For these children, the story of Buck and the uncertainty he faces likely mirror their own journeys.

  • Call of the Wild is also a story of resilience. Buck goes through many trials, but is able to retain his loving and unique personality despite all of the hardships he has faced. In the end he is able to become an even stronger dog and leader than he was to start with. Buck is able to take all the good experiences he’s had- in his original family, as part of the sled dog team, and his time with John Thornton and use those experiences to grow and adapt and help him get through the harder times. Ultimately, he is able to overcome the trauma of his youth and successfully go into the world on his own and start a family of his own. All children who have experienced trauma and made it through the other side have resilience of their own which has allowed them to get to where they are now. Seeing Buck’s journey can serve as inspiration for being able to overcome hard things and hope for a future of happiness.

Discussion Points:

  • Resilience
    Buck suffers many hardships throughout the film. He is taken away from his family, abused, and forced to work in very difficult conditions, even to the point of nearly being worked to death. At one point Buck is described as being “beaten, but not broken.” Despite all he’s been through Buck is able to survive and even thrive once he gets through those situations. And even along the way he is able to find happiness in small moments, such as the joy he expresses when he experiences snow for the first time, despite having just been ripped away from his family and abused. This can be a great opportunity to discuss resilience with youth and commend them for all that they have been able to overcome on their journey to where they are now. All children who have experienced trauma and made it through the other side have resilience of their own which has allowed them to get to where they are now. Seeing Buck’s journey can serve as inspiration for being able to overcome hard things and hope for a future of happiness.
  • Teamwork
    Another message throughout the film is that one can accomplish more when working as a team and helping one another. When Buck first joins the sled dog team he has no experience with what he’s doing and is also extremely independent. He’s used to doing what he wants, when he wants to. But now that he’s harnessed with 8 other dogs, he must learn to cooperate. This is best demonstrated when Buck tries to take off chasing a rabbit and instead ends up pulling the whole team and sled off the side of a hill. But when they work together, they’re able to deliver the mail on time and get through dangerous situations safely. In another scene, Buck is scared off by a bear, but later he is able to use the strength of his entire wolf pack to scare the bear away from hurting them. When children have a background of trauma they often isolate themselves- the age old notion that if you aren’t close to anyone, no one can hurt you. Discussing the ways Buck was strong as part of a pack or family may help youth to realize that there are times when having others around to have your back can be an asset, rather than a liability.
  • Processing Grief
    John Thornton lost his son and has been lost in grief for a long time when he meets Buck. He’s isolated himself and tells Buck, “I didn’t want to be around anybody”. Through building a relationship with Buck and helping him to heal, it also helps John heal. He and Buck take a journey ‘off the map’ in his son’s honor- a trip they had planned to make together. During this journey, and by allowing Buck to find his home, John is able to heal these old wounds and decides that it’s time for him “to go home. Pick up the pieces- whatever’s left. At least try.” All children in foster and adoptive families have experienced a degree of loss- whether through death or separation from their Biological family. So to watch the unhealthy ways that John is dealing with this at the start of the movie and the ways in which, through his friendship with Buck, he’s able to transition to acknowledging and processing his loss in a healthier way can be a great jumping off point for talking about dealing with children’s own grief and loss.

Cautionary Points:

  • Frequent Separation from Family
    Early in the movie Buck is lured away from his home and family by a stranger who then captures him and sells him in Alaska. Buck then joins a Postal Service sled team with Master Perrault who is later forced to sell him and the rest of the team when his route becomes obsolete. Then, Buck is rescued from a cruel master but the rest of his pack is left to possibly die. Finally, Buck has to deal with John Thornton, his rescuer and ‘family’ dying at the end of the film and he is left on his own. All of these separations are traumatic for Buck in some way and may also be upsetting to children who have experienced painful separations of their own.
  • Animal Abuse
    When Buck is sold and then transported to Alaska, the men on the ship threaten his obedience with a club and ultimately strike him with it. This is shown in shadows, rather than directly on, but is an extremely difficult scene to watch and would be even more so for children who have been abused or witnessed abuse to others. There are several other scenes where Buck and other dogs are threatened with this club and cower away in fear before it can be used. Additionally when Buck and his team are purchased by Hal, the cruel and inexperienced sled driver, the dogs are shown being worked to the point of exhaustion where they physically cannot go on. He also beats the animals with whips. While this is not shown visually you can hear the crack of the whip and the dogs whimpering.
  • Moderate Peril
    Call of the Wild is an action/adventure and for the length of the movie characters are thrust into one dangerous situation after another. Everything from racing to outrun an avalanche, to characters threatening others with weapons, to a man being pushed into a burning building and everything in between. While there are a few ‘quiet’ scenes between these more intense ones, there isn’t enough time for the adrenaline to really wear off before the intensity swells again.
  • Violence/Stalking
    There are a number of scenes with both actual and threatened violence. Clubs and whips are used on the dogs several times. Hal points a gun at an exhausted Buck and threatens to shoot him before John steps in to save him. Later, Hal threatens John with a gun in a bar, stalks him and destroys his home before eventually hunting him down in his cabin in the woods and ends up shooting him. Buck also pushes Hal into the burning cabin, resulting in his death. These scenes of violence are upsetting in general, but for children who have experienced an abusive caregiver, the focused violence from Hal towards John that results in his stalking him and finding him, even in the remote cabin he moves to, could be extremely traumatic. Especially if children are still dealing with anxiety about their abuser finding them in their new home. And while Buck standing up to and ultimately killing Hal, his abuser, at the end is meant to be empowering it may also encourage feelings of wanting vengeance.
  • Drowning
    In one scene the ice on a frozen lake breaks and Francois, one of the sled team’s masters, falls through. Buck goes in after her and ultimately is able to save her. But there are several intense minutes where it appears as if she is drowning while trapped under the ice. Then again, after saving her, Buck falls back into the water and the viewer is led to believe that he will die while trapped (or even that he has died) as Perrault mourns his loss before at last Buck appears back on the land safely. These scenes may be upsetting to children who have fears of water/drowning or have had traumatic experiences with water before.
  • Natural Disasters/Severe Weather
    In addition to falling through the ice/drowning, there is also a scene where the sled team has to outrun an avalanche and later, a cabin is set on fire. For children who have experienced or been displaced due to natural disasters such as fire, etc. this may be upsetting.
  • Substance Use
    There are several scenes when John drinks as a way to cope with the grief he is experiencing due to the loss of his son. However, drinking is portrayed negatively as Buck gets upset with John when he drinks and often takes away the whiskey bottle or barks at him to indicate his displeasure. Ultimately this gets John to stop drinking. While this is played off for laughs in the movie, and is shown as a successful way to stop drinking…similar strategies with alcoholics in reality are often much more likely to cause negative results or even retaliation. If children have lived with a family member who had a drinking problem watching these scenes may result in distress. Especially if they, like Buck, tried to stop the drinking and it resulted in punishment, abuse, or other negative ramifications.

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About the Author: Jenn Ehlers

Jenn is a central Virginia native who received her BA in Psychology from the University of Virginia in 2012. Since then she has worked for a local mental health agency and the Department of Social Services in various capacities and has been involved in her community’s efforts to create a Trauma Informed Network. Currently Jenn works in vocational rehab and mentors youth in foster care. When she isn’t working, Jenn enjoys writing stories, anything and everything Harry Potter, and spending time with her niece and nephew.

**Transfiguring Adoption is a nonprofit organization seeking to nurture growth in foster and adoptive families by giving a HOOT about their families. Transfiguring Adoption does not intend for its reviewers nor its review to be professional, medical or legal advice. These reviews and discussion guides are intended to help parents to better be able to connect and understand their children who come from traumatic backgrounds.


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