Review: ‘The Rental’ (2020), starring Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand and Jeremy Allen White

July 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

Dan Stevens, Sheila Vand and Jeremy Allen White in “The Rental” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“The Rental”  (2020)

Directed by Dave Franco

Culture Representation: Taking place in Oregon and in California, the horror flick “The Rental” features a predominantly white cast (with one character of Middle Eastern heritage) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash:  Two couples rent a cliffside vacation home for a weekend and find themselves spied on and stalked by a mysterious stranger.

Culture Audience: “The Rental” will appeal primarily to people who like suspenseful yet formulaic slasher flicks that have better-than-average acting.

Alison Brie in “The Rental” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

It might not be a widely known fact, but the 2020 horror film “The Rental” (directed by Dave Franco) has a coincidentally similar plot to the 2019 horror film “The Rental,” directed by Tim Connolly. Both movies are about two men and two women who rent a house for a weekend, only to become targets of a deranged killer. (In Connolly’s “The Rental,” the house is in the mountains, while in Franco’s “The Rental,” the house is perched on a treacherous oceanside cliff.)

Franco’s “The Rental” has gotten more attention than Connolly’s “The Rental” because it’s Franco’s feature-film directorial debut, after he’s spent years as an actor best known for co-starring in movies such as “Neighbors,” “21 Jump Street” and “The Disaster Artist.” Franco isn’t an actor in “The Rental,” but he’s one of the producers, and he co-wrote the screenplay with independent film veteran Joe Swanberg.

“The Rental” doesn’t have an original concept—there have been numerous horror movies about a killer who goes after people in an isolated house—but the movie does have above-average acting talent in its very sparsely populated cast. The actors make the best out of their roles in a movie that starts out as a psychological drama and then ends up being a formulaic horror film.

In Franco’s “The Rental,” a sleek but isolated cliffside home in an unnamed Oregon city has been rented for a weekend so that two couples can celebrate a recent milestone. Ambitious alpha male Charlie (played by Dan Stevens) and his intelligent business partner Mina Mohamnadi (played by Sheila Vand) have just received a great deal of investor money (the movie doesn’t say how much) to fund their start-up company in northern California. (The movie also doesn’t say what is the company’s industry.)

Mina is dating Charlie’s troubled younger brother Josh (played by Jeremy Allen White), while Charlie is married to loving and supportive Michelle (played by Alison Brie, who is married to Franco in real life). They all live far-enough away in California from the rental house in Oregon, that their road trip takes several hours to get there.

The dynamics between these two couples are established early on in the story, so viewers know about the underlying tensions in the relationships. Before they go on their road trip, Charlie and Michelle discuss Mina and Josh’s fairly new romance. It’s not stated in the movie exactly how long Charlie and Michelle have been married, but they’ve been together for about five to eight years, based on conversations that happen later in the film.

In a private conversation in their bedroom, Michelle remarks to Charlie that she can’t believe she’s going on a vacation with Josh. Charlie makes a cynical remark that the relationship between Mina and Josh probably won’t last because Charlie thinks Josh and Mina are a mismatched couple. Michelle is more optimistic and says that Josh seems “motivated” now that he’s been dating Mina, whom she calls “the total package.”

Why is there all of this negativity about Josh? It’s because he’s been struggling to get his life together after being an aimless troublemaker. He got expelled from college for nearly beating a guy to death in front of a frat house, and Josh spent time in prison for this assault. Josh is currently working as a part-time Lyft driver while taking some night classes.

Michelle comments on how Josh’s romance with Mina seems to have changed him for the better: “I’ve never seen him like this. He really loves her. I think it’s sweet.” Charlie replies, “Of course he loves her. He hit the fucking jackpot.” And why does Charlie think Mina is such a great catch?

The opening scene of the film shows Charlie and Mina (who is the CEO of her and Charlie’s start-up company) in their office, looking at house rentals on the same computer. They are on a website that is not named, but it’s clearly a website that is like Airbnb, the popular online company that allows home owners to be their own real-estate agents in deciding which of the website’s registered members will get to rent out their homes. The cliffside house, which is Charlie and Mina’s first choice, is a little of out their price range, but Charlie and Mina decide to reward themselves by splurging on the rental.

Based on their comfortable body language with each other (they’re leaning in to look at the computer closely together) and based on how they’re talking, it would be easy to assume that Charlie and Mina are a couple. Does this mean there’s some sexual tension between Charlie and Mina? Of course there is. And maybe that’s why Charlie thinks Mina is too good for his younger brother Josh, who has a history of being an ill-tempered screw-up.

It seems that Josh is still a bit of a rebel who likes to break rules. When Charlie and Michelle go to pick up Mina and Josh for their road trip, they see that Josh has brought his French bulldog Reggie along for the trip, even though Josh knows that the house’s rental policy clearly states that pets aren’t allowed in the house. Charlie (who’s doing the driving, of course) immediately objects to the dog going on the trip.

However, Josh insists that the dog go with them, and he says that they can hide the dog until after the person handing them the house keys will leave. Because Charlie doesn’t want to waste time arguing about it, he lets Josh have his way, and the dog goes with them on the trip.

During the drive to the rental house, Mina comments that her application to rent the house was rejected, even though she has practically the same qualifications as Charlie, whose application was accepted immediately. She thinks that her Middle Eastern name had something to do with the rejection, but Charlie dismisses the idea.

“The Rental” has some obvious messages about racism, sexism and “white privilege” by showing viewers how Mina and Charlie have very two different perspectives on how they navigate through life, based on how people treat them. Mina is very aware that being a woman of Middle Eastern descent means that bigots will exclude her from opportunities and make negative assumptions about her, while Charlie is more likely to be given opportunities and a positive benefit of the doubt because he’s a white man.

The movie makes it clear that Charlie is someone who doesn’t like to acknowledge that “white privilege” exists, because that would mean admitting that he has an unfair advantage over people of color in many situations where he benefits from people who believe in white supremacy. Someone like Charlie gets uncomfortable thinking that opportunities and accomplishments might have come his way a lot easier than for people of color who are equally or more qualified than he is.

Therefore, when Mina brings up the likelihood that she was discriminated against, Charlie doesn’t really want to hear it. Mina tells everyone in the car that she was rejected for other rental applications too, whereas Charlie was not rejected. Charlie says to Mina that there were probably other reasons why she was rejected.

Mina’s suspicions about the discrimination grow even more when the two couples arrive at the house and meet the caretaker who will hand them the house keys. The caretaker’s name is Taylor (played by Toby Huss), a scruffy, middle-aged guy who mentions that his brother is the house owner who never lives there, but Taylor is the one who looks after the house and oversees the rentals.

When Charlie introduces everyone to Taylor and mentions that Mina is his business partner and is Josh’s girlfriend, the caretaker rudely comments to Mina, “How’d you get mixed up in this family?” When Mina asks Taylor what he means by that, he denies that he meant anything by it.

Mina is bothered by the subtle racism that she seems to have gotten from Taylor, so she tells Josh in a private conversation outside that she doesn’t feel comfortable giving their money to a racist. Josh convinces her that they might as well stay to enjoy their vacation as much as possible, since the rental was paid for already and they already made a long road trip to get there.

Later, Mina confronts Taylor in front of everyone, by asking him why her application was rejected and Charlie’s application was immediately accepted. Taylor looks uncomfortable and says he doesn’t remember her application. Mina then reminds Taylor of her full name, while he looks increasingly uncomfortable. Charlie is starting to look embarrassed, and he tries to diffuse the tension by indicating that he wants Mina to stop this line of questioning.

Mina then tells Taylor that she and Charlie have nearly identical qualifications, but the application from a white man (Charlie) was accepted, and her application was rejected. Taylor still won’t answer the question. Instead, he turns the conversation around and tells Mina that if she has a problem, she can cancel the rental. 

Taylor’s deflection is shady and manipulative, because Taylor knows that the rental is in Charlie’s name, and it’s pretty obvious that Charlie doesn’t want to cancel the rental agreement or cause any arguments with Taylor. Mina also knows that the other people in the group don’t want to cancel the rental agreement, so she has no choice but to let the matter go.

This heated conversation between Mina and Taylor is meant to exemplify how people who try to confront issues of discrimination are often “shut down” and labeled as “difficult” by people trying to divert attention away from the real issues. Meanwhile, people who aren’t directly affected by discrimination, but know about it, often won’t speak up and will act like they want the issue to just go away—as exemplified by how Charlie, Josh and Michelle do nothing to come to Mina’s defense.

Before he leaves the two couples to have the house to themselves, Taylor shows that he’s not only a racist but he’s also a creep when he mentions that there’s a telescope they can use in the house, in case anyone wants to be a Peeping Tom. Taylor says it in a joking manner, but his tone of voice indicates that he’s only half-joking.

After getting settled in, the two couples go for an evening walk on the beach. When they come back to the house that night, they see that someone (presumably Taylor) set up the telescope in the living room while the two couples were away.

Mina immediately expresses discomfort that Taylor can come and goes as he pleases while they’re staying at the house. But the other people in the group act as if she’s being a little too paranoid and “difficult,” so Mina is made to feel once again that she’s in the minority.

“The Rental” is written in such a way that the entire movie can be viewed as a social commentary about peer pressure and how failing to speak up and report problems—for the sake of pretending that everything is okay and going along with a group mentality—can ultimately be dangerous to someone’s well-being. There’s also social commentary about power dynamics and rivalries between men, women and siblings and why people keep certain secrets.

In one scene, Michelle and Josh are having a private conversation while they’re hiking in the woods. It’s revealed in this conversation that Michelle is a lot more insecure about Charlie and Mina’s relationship than she would like to publicly admit. Charlie clearly admires Mina’s intellect and ambition, but Michelle doesn’t have those same qualities, so Michelle feels that Mina is giving Charlie a type of emotional fulfilment that Michelle, as his wife, can’t give.

It’s never stated in the movie if Michelle works outside of her home or not, but it is made clear that she has nothing to do with Charlie’s start-up business and doesn’t help him make any decisions about the company. Michelle’s insecurities are fueled when Josh divulges some information about two of Charlie’s former girlfriends whom Charlie dated before Charlie met Michelle.

The movie also has a not-so-subtle message about invasion of privacy and the type of trust that people willingly hand over to strangers in a house-rental situation that was arranged online. The trust issues go both ways for the renters and the house owners. And when these transactions are done online, where people can write relatively anonymous reviews about their rental experience, there might be a false sense of security that things will be completely safe.

Not long after getting settled in at the rental house, Mina and Josh find a guest house, which has a locked door on a lower-deck level. The door has a key-code lock. What’s behind the door? It’s revealed in the movie whether or not what’s behind the door is relevant to the story.

Meanwhile, some Ecstasy-fueled partying in the house and some hidden surveillance result in a chain of events that bring on the horror. It’s enough to say that the couples in the house are being stalked and spied on, and there is some bloody mayhem that ensues.

“The Rental,” which has a lot of scenes that take place at night, certainly brings the right atmosphere to the movie, as things get more sinister as the story unfolds. The abundance of fog can be explained by the fact that this story takes place mostly in a cliffside house near a treacherous ocean. And the film’s musical score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans is a definite asset in the movie’s most effective thrilling scenes.

However, a lot of horror fans might not like that it takes so long (about two-thirds of the movie) for “The Rental” to get to any suspenseful action. Most of the film is really a character study of the increasingly tense relationships between Charlie, Michelle, Mina and Josh. Because the dialogue is realistic, the actors are well-cast, and the acting is better than what’s in an average horror movie, it’s worth the wait to get to the scenes in the movie where the characters are in real danger.

“The Rental” director Franco shows promising talent for telling a good story, but in the end, not much of it is very original. In fact, the least original part of “The Rental” is the murder spree, which has been seen and done in many other horror movies. Although “The Rental’s” characters are engaging and believable (Vand and Brie give the best performances), the action scenes are very formulaic.

People who expect a slasher flick to have the first killing happen within the first 15 minutes of the movie will probably be bored or disappointed by “The Rental.” Anyone who sees this movie has to be willing to sit through a lot of realistic relationship drama before getting to the over-the-top and predictable horror violence.

IFC Films released “The Rental” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on July 24, 2020.

Review: ‘Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga,’ starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams

June 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (Photo by John Wilson/Netflix)

Culture Representation: Taking place in Iceland and Scotland, the musical comedy “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” has a predominantly white cast (with some black people, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An Icelandic male/female pop-music duo called Fire Saga aspire to on the annual Eurovision Song Contest, but they come up against naysayers in their home country as well as competitors from other countries.

Culture Audience: “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” will appeal primarily to fans of stars Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams, as well as to people who like good-natured satires of fame seekers and hokey TV talent contests.

Dan Stevens in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (Photo by John Wilson/Netflix)

“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” is an entertaining parody of the famous annual Eurovision Song Contest that feels retro and contemporary at the same time. The contest, which began in 1956 and is televised in numerous countries, has singers (usually performing pop music) competing from different countries around the world, as a sort of an Olympics for aspiring music stars. Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams portray the earnest but naïve Lars Erickssong and Sigrit Ericksdottir, a musical duo from Iceland who perform under the stage name Fire Saga. Ferrell, who co-wrote the original screenplay with Andrew Steele, is one of the producers of this comedy. And it’s one of Ferrell’s best movies in years.

Although “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (directed by David Dobkin) takes place in the present day, a lot of the musical sensibilities and costumes seem to be stuck in a previous decade, especially the 1980s or 1990s. The movie’s running joke, although not explicitly stated, is that certain parts of Europe are “behind the times” in pop music, because these countries rarely produce groundbreaking pop superstars on a worldwide level. Therefore, the performers who represent these countries at Eurovision are often ridiculed by Eurovision haters for looking and sounding outdated.

The trailer for “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” already shows that Fire Saga made it to the contest. Therefore, the first third of this 123-minute movie has no suspense, since it’s all about the obstacles that Fire Saga encounters in the quest to make it to Eurovision. Iceland has never had a Eurovision winner, so that immediately makes Fire Saga the ultimate underdog act.

The movie begins in Húsavík, Iceland, on April 6, 1974, when a pre-teen Lars (played by Alfie Melia), his stern widower father Erick (played by Pierce Brosnan) and other members of the family are watching Eurovision in the living room. The Swedish pop group ABBA is performing “Waterloo,” and Lars is transfixed. (ABBA won Eurovision that year and has remained Eurovision’s most famous winning act.)

As Lars dances along to ABBA performing on TV, he announces to his family that someday, he’s going to be a contestant on Eurovision. Several people scoff at the idea, including Erick, who says he’d rather be dead than to have his son sing and dance on Eurovision. Well, you know what that means.

About 45 years later, Lars is still living with his father, who makes a living as a fisherman, while Lars has a job giving parking tickets. Lars and his musical partner Sigrit (who is a music teacher) are longtime friends. They are singers and multi-instrumentalists, but they’ve been floundering in the dead-end local music scene. Fire Saga’s music “career” consists of rehearsing in the basement of Erick’s house and performing at a small local bar.

A running joke in the movie is that the patrons of this bar don’t want to hear any Fire Saga original songs (such as the trash-tastic “Volcano Man”) and would rather hear Fire Saga perform a very childish, nonsensical tune called “Jaja Ding Dong.” The audience is so fanatical about “Jaja Ding Dong” that they will often demand that Fire Saga perform it more than once in a single set. Is it any wonder that Lars and Sigrit think Eurovision will be their ticket out of this backwards town?

Erick isn’t the only one who thinks Lars is a loser and that it’s a delusional lost cause for Fire Saga to be on Eurovision. Sigrit’s single mother Helka (played by Elin Petersdottir) vehemently disapproves of Sigrit chasing this dream and tells Sigrit that she’s wasting her time with Lars. Although it’s not shown in the movie, it’s mentioned that Sigrit used to be mute as a child, until she met Lars and he helped her find her voice through music. And Lars and Sigrit have been friends ever since.

But now that they’re adults, Sigrit wants to be more than friends with Lars, because she’s secretly in love with him. Lars has the maturity level of a teenager (like most characters Farrell tends to play), so Lars is completely oblivious to Sigrit’s true feelings for him. As if to make the point that Lars and Sigrit don’t exude sexual chemistry with each other, throughout the movie, people who meet Lars and Sigrit for the first time mistakenly assume that Lars and Sigrit are brother and sister. Later in the story, when Sigrit and Lars almost kiss romantically, he stops it from happening because he says they can’t ruin their work relationship with a romance, and they have to stay focused on winning Eurovision.

But getting to Eurovision won’t be so easy. First, Fire Saga has to win the Icelandic Song Contest. Neils Brongus (played by Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), the president of Icelandic Public Television, leads a committee in charge of deciding who will be contestants in the Icelandic Song Contest. And he already has a favorite to win: Katiana Lindsdottir (played by Demi Lovato), from Kefalvik, a ready-made pop star with a powerful singing voice.

Neils tells his assembled team after watching Katiana’s audition video: “Without being dramatic, I think it might be the best audition tape we ever had in the history of the Icelandic Song Contest.”  (In the movie, Lovato sings the original song “In the Mirror.”) Compared to Katiana, Fire Saga looks like a bad joke.

Meanwhile, Victor Karlsson (played by Mikael Persbrandt), governor of Central Bank of Iceland, is worried about a contestant from Iceland winning Eurovision, which has a tradition of the winning contestant’s country hosting the contest in the following year. Victor fears that Iceland doesn’t have the infrastructure to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of people who would come to Iceland for Eurovision. And  he thinks that all those visitors during a short period of time could bankrupt Iceland.

Therefore, Victor is not enthusiastic about Katiana or anyone from Iceland winning Eurovision. When Victor expresses his concerns to Neils and the team at Icelandic Public Television, the rest of the group immediately shoots down Victor’s pessimistic prediction, because they think Eurovision coming to Iceland would be great for the Icelandic economy.

Lars’ dream of wining Eurovision becomes even more desperate when he finds himself homeless. His father Erick is having serious financial problems and has a choice to sell his house or sell his boat. Since Erick needs his boat for his fisherman income, he decides to sell the house.

Meanwhile, Sigrit has a quirk that Lars finds a little irritating: She believes in elves and thinks that elves can grant wishes. A recurring joke in the movie is that she visits a group of tiny houses built for elves and offers food and other gifts to the unseen creatures, as a way to entice them to grant her wishes. Two of her biggest wishes are to win Eurovision and to get together with Lars and start a family with him.

Through a series of unpredictable events, Fire Saga ends up representing Iceland at Eurovision, which is being held in Edinburgh, Scotland. How the usually hapless Fire Saga got to Eurovision wasn’t necessarily because Fire Saga was voted the best act, so Iceland’s support is lukewarm at best. Still, Iceland has given Fire Saga enough support that the country has hired a creative team to help Fire Saga win with Fire Saga’s chosen song “Double Trouble.”

The artistic director of this creative team is the very fussy and flamboyant Kevin Swain (played by Jamie Demetriou, in a scene-stealing performance), who sometimes clashes with the creative vision that Lars and Sigrit have for Fire Saga. During Eurovision rehearsals, Lars and Sirgit also meet another flamboyant character: Russian contestant Alexander Lemtov (played by Dan Stevens), a singer who flaunts his wealth and gives the impression that he will sleep with anyone to get them to do what he wants. Alexander’s Eurovision song is called “Lion of Love,” and his bombastic performance of the song includes a homoerotic choreography with male backup dancers wearing skintight gold lamé pants.

Alexander (whose frosted 1980s hairdo is reminiscent of George Michael in his Wham! days) immediately sets his sights on Sigrit to target as a sexual conquest. Meanwhile, Lars attracts the amorous attention of Greek contestant Mita Xenakis (played by Melissanthi Mahut), a singer who’s like a cross between Ariana Grande and Cher. Not surprisingly, some jealousy situations ensue.

In between all of the backstage drama and hilariously tacky performances, the movie has a standout musical ensemble number that takes place at a contestant party thrown by Alexander. In this scene, numerous contestants (including Lars, Sigrit, Alexander and Mita) do an extravagant medley of Cher’s “Believe,” Madonna’s “Ray of Light,” ABBA’s “Waterloo” and the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.”

Savan Kotecha, the musical director for this movie, assembled the team that wrote the film’s original songs that were deliberately kitschy. His background in writing and producing hits for real-life pop stars serves this movie very well. Among the hits that Kotecha co-written and co-produced include The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” Grande’s “God Is a Woman,” One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful” and Lovato’s “Confident.” The musical score by Atli Örvarsson complements the pop tunes without being overbearing.

The movie’s Eurovision performance scenes, which includes footage from real Eurovision arena shows, are among the comedic highlights of the film. Just when you think an act couldn’t get campier or more pompous, another one comes along to surpass it. Graham Norton (portraying himself) adds an element of satirical realism with his cameo as the sardonic TV commentator for Eurovision.

For “Eurovision Song Contest,” McAdams and Ferrell have reunited with their “Wedding Crashers” director Dobkin, whose previous experience as a music-video director is an asset for this musical movie. As for the singing in the movie, Lovato and Mahut are professional singers in real life, so they did their own vocals. Adams’ vocals were either her own or a combination of McAdams and those of Swedish singer Molly Sandé. Alexander’s operatic singing vocals were provided by Erik Mjönes.

“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” has plenty of lowbrow jokes that are actually laugh-out-loud funny. For example, there are several penis jokes and jokes about naked men in the movie. The jokes are crude but not offensive. In one scene, Lars comments: “I think of my penis like a Volvo—solid, sturdy, dependable, but not going to turn any heads.” Comedy is all about delivery, and Ferrell delivers the line in such a good natured, self-deprecating way, that it will make people laugh.

The movie doesn’t just poke fun at tacky aspiring pop stars from Europe. Americans are also the butt of many jokes in the film. During the course of the movie, Lars and Sigrit keep encountering the same group of college-age American tourists. Lars makes it known that he dislikes Americans, by taunting the tourists with the worst “ugly American” stereotypes. His insults aren’t too far off from how many non-Americans perceive Americans.

Make no mistake: “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” is by no means an Oscar-worthy movie. (Ferrell has never starred in that type of movie anyway.) But it is a cut above some of the stinkers that Ferrell has been headlining in recent years. At its heart, “Eurovision Song Contest” has a sentimentality to it that just might win people over in the way that Fire Saga earnestly tries to charm audiences—not by being the most talented but by being their unapologetically corny selves.

Netflix premiered “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” on June 26, 2020.

Review: ‘The Call of the Wild’ (2020), starring Harrison Ford

February 21, 2020

by Carla Hay

Harrison Ford in "The Call of the Wild"
Harrison Ford in “The Call of the Wild” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“The Call of the Wild”

Directed by Chris Sanders

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Alaska during the 1890s Gold Rush era, the action-adventure film “The Call of the Wild” has a predominantly white cast that represent the working-class and middle-class whose lives are touched in some way by a very lovable and determined St. Bernard/Farm Collie mix dog.

Culture Clash: The characters have conflicts over greed for gold, as well as ownership of the dog.

Culture Audience: “The Call of the Wild” is a family-friendly film that will appeal to fans of Harrison Ford and people who love dogs.

Omar Sy in “The Call of the Wild” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“The Call of the Wild” takes Jack London ‘s classic 1903 novel on which it based and turns it into live-action/animated hybrid adventure story with moments that are heartwarming, heartbreaking and unapologetically sentimental. The story, which takes place during the 1890s, centers on a St. Bernard/Farm Collie mix dog named Buck, who teaches the humans quite a few things about bravery and emotional intelligence. Harrison Ford receives top billing in the movie, but viewers who don’t know the book’s original story should know that his John Thornton character is mainly in the latter half of the story, although his voiceover narration is throughout the film. The movie keeps most of the plot points the same as the original story, but there are also some changes from the novel.

When viewers first see Buck, he’s living a pampered life in Santa Clara, California, with Judge Miller (played by Bradley Whitford), his wife Katie (played by Jean Louisa Kelly) and their family. Buck is playful and mischievous—so much so, that he ruins the family’s Thanksgiving dinner by trashing the table and eating the entire Thanksgiving feast. Judge Miller gets angry but he’s a kind dog owner who doesn’t abuse his pet.

One night, Buck is stolen by a man who sells the dog to an abusive sailor, who hits Buck with a club and keeps him confined. There are scenes of animal cruelty that might be a little disturbing to very sensitive viewers. Buck is on a ship that is headed to Alaska. Through ingenuity, luck and a will to fight, Buck escapes his cruel owner and finds himself homeless in Dawson City, Alaska. He is taken by an old man, who doesn’t treat Buck much better than the sailor, so Buck runs away again.

While Buck is escaping, he runs into a gold prospector named John Thornton (played by Ford), a recluse who’s come into town for errands. Buck finds John’s harmonica on the street, and John is struck by how intelligent the dog seems to be. Unfortunately, Buck’s old man owner catches up to Buck and he’s back in captivity again.

Buck is eventually taken to a dog pound, where he’s bought by Perrault (played by Omar Sy), a French Canadian who runs a dog-sled service that delivers mail. Perrault immediately warms up to Buck, but his jaded assistant Francoise (played by Cara Gee) isn’t too fond of the dog at first. (In the novel, the dog-sled operators were two men named Perrault and Francois.) Perrault makes Buck part of the dog-sled team, which is lead by an arrogant alpha male Siberian husky named Spitz. The rest of the dogs are of various large-sized breeds.

The dog-sled work is grueling, especially when it’s in the snow, but Buck is a quick learner and he makes friends with the rest of the dogs, except for Spitz. For example, there’s a scene where Spitz makes the other dogs wait for him to finish drinking water from an icy lake, but Buck takes his paws to break open the ice to create a new place where the dogs can drink without waiting for Spitz.

It’s worth mentioning that the CGI visual effects for the animals start off looking very unrealistic, but they get better during the course of the movie. The animals have very humanistic facial expressions and movements, so don’t expect this movie to be completely realistic. You also have to suspend disbelief at some of the superhuman stunts that Buck is able to do. However, the movie doesn’t go too far with the human characteristics for the animals—the animals don’t cry, walk like humans, or talk in human languages—so overall the ways that the animals are presented are mostly realistic.

Whenever there’s an action movie that takes place near a frozen body of water, the inevitable happens: Someone falls through the ice into the water. This happens to Francoise, but of course Buck is there to rescue her and save her life. Her attitude toward Buck starts to change after that incident. She begrudgingly admits to Buck that she underestimated him and that he’s impressed her the most out of all of the dogs in the pack. And wouldn’t you know, Spitz is off in the distance seeing this bonding moment and gets jealous, so he later starts a fight with Buck, leading to a showdown over who’s going to be the alpha male of the pack.

Because the trailers for “The Call of the Wild” make the movie look like it’s only about Buck and John, viewers who don’t know the book might be surprised to see how much of the movie is about Buck’s time in the dog-sled pack. It’s a pivotal part of the story in the novel and the film, because it’s the first time that Buck experiences being part of a dog pack. It’s also the first time he becomes in touch with his wild instincts that originate from the wolves who are ancestors of domesticated dogs. (When Buck uses his primal instincts, he sees a vision of a black wolf with glowing eyes )

So how did Buck end up with John? Buck and the sled team get a new owner named Hal, a greedy, insufferable fop who’s the most abusive owner yet for Buck. Hal wants the dog pack to take him, his sister Mercedes (played by Karen Gillan) and Mercedes’ passive husband Charles (played by Colin Goodell) on gold mining expeditions. Hal beats and starves the dogs into submission. If you love animals, this part of the film is hard to watch, even if you know the animals aren’t real.

Luckily, when John encounters the gold-digging trio and the mistreated dog pack, he rescues a severely malnourished and injured Buck. Hal leaves with the rest of the pack. (What happens to Hal and the dog pack in this movie is different from what happens to them in the original novel.) John takes Buck back to his small and sparse cabin in the woods and nurses the dog back to health.

John lives simply, and his gruff exterior masks a lot of emotional pain. He’s the type of prospector who isn’t looking for gold to get rich. At one point, he tells Buck that all a man needs is enough money “to buy groceries for life.” And it’s easy to see why he feels a strong connection to Buck, because Buck has also experienced a lot of pain.

During Buck’s time with John, Buck meets a pretty female hinterland wolf with white fur, and she introduces him to her pack, which readily accepts Buck, and he spends more and more time with them. (This is where the movie takes a sharp turn from reality, because in real life, a domesticated dog would be attacked and probably killed by a pack of wild wolves.)

It’s during this time that John (who talks to Buck like a human) reveals what happened in his past that’s made him a such a recluse: He had a son who died (it’s not mentioned how he died), and the grief over his son’s death led to him being estranged from his wife. It’s implied in the movie that John left his wife, they’re now divorced, and he let her keep their marital house and everything in it.

John is also a heavy drinker—and this is where the humanistic qualities of Buck are really shown in the movie—the dog scolds John for drinking too much, whether it’s by Buck hiding John’s flask of alcohol or making disapproving noises when he sees John drinking too much. Yes, Buck is not only an incredibly resourceful dog, apparently he’s also an addiction counselor/interventionist too.

Whenever there’s a movie about the wild, wild West, there also seems to be an obligatory scene with a bar fight. That moment comes when John is drinking at a bar and he gets sucker-punched by Hal, who’s angry at John because the dog pack ran off, thereby putting a severe damper on Hal’s gold-digging excursions in the rough terrain. Of course, Buck comes to the rescue when John is attacked. John fights back too, and Hal is thrown out of the bar. Do you think that’s the last we’ll see of Hal in this movie? Of course not.

The rest of the movie is about the bonding time that Buck and John spend together when John decides to take the adventure trip that he and his son had planned before his son died. “The Call of the Wild” is the first movie with live action for director Chris Sanders, who previously directed the animated films “How to Train Your Dragon,” “The Croods” and “Lilo & Stitch.” Fans of the “How to Train Your Dragon” series might see some similarities in the “man’s best friend” theme in both movies and how the animals take on human mannerisms.

There have been other “The Call of the Wild” movies, but this is the first to have this type of CGI animation for the animals. For the most part, it works well, even if the action sometimes look cartoonish because of what some of the things these animated animals do that real animals can’t do. However, this version of “The Call of the Wild” (whose screenplay was written by Michael Green) keeps the story’s message of resilience and friendship intact and treats it with respect. It’s a timeless message that will resonate even with changes in movie technology.

20th Century Studios released “The Call of the Wild” in U.S. cinemas on February 21, 2020.

UPDATE: Because of the widespread coronavirus-related closures of movie theaters worldwide, 20th Century Home Entertainment has moved up the digital release of “The Call of the Wild” to March 27, 2020.