I very rarely post movie reviews, but I had some "things to say" about this one.
So we saw this tonight at my grandma's invitation.
My take: It was fun, but the CGI dog was endlessly distracting. They basically wanted a cartoon dog, and yeah, they would've had to use CGI for some of the scenes for obvious "that would be impossible to train a dog to do" reasons (or would put a real dog in danger ...) and some of the facial expression enhancement might've been necessary to convey the inner feelings of an animal who wouldn't usually emote to that degree ... but I swear there was not a single scene in this featuring any real dogs. They were all cartoon dogs. Extremely well animated cartoon dogs, but cartoon dogs nonetheless.
Also, and here is where I admit, I am embarrassingly unsure if I've read the book or not. I have it in my head that I did in high school, but my memories are mostly of the Charlton Heston movie adaptation from the 70s ... but I remember this being kind of gritty and sad, and this is the most PG "soften every blow" movie I have seen in a long time.
(spoilers start beyond this point)
Like (iirc) there's a plot point where Buck and his sled dog team are purchased by a city slicker who is taking his wife into the woods to hunt for gold and everyone is telling him, "don't cross the river because it's thawing" but he's too proud/stupid and the GoodGuy(tm) rescues Buck from this sled dog team after the city slicker has run him into the ground with an overloaded sled and poor treatment ... and in my memory the city slicker immediately goes out onto the river and Buck and GoodGuy(tm) watch as the whole sled goes through the ice, drowning the dog team, the city slicker, and city slicker's wife (who in the 2020 version was bizarrely and inexplicably played by Amy Pond/Ruby Roundhouse/Nebula/Karen Gillan because ... I don't know? Seemed like a waste). Here they cut away after the city slicker drives off.
So at first I thought they were just going to leave it ambiguous, but no, the guy later returns as an over-the-top-crazy-eyed villain to tell GoodGuy(tm) that his dogs "ran off" (My daughter, Claire, was NOT satisfied with this explanation and kept asking where the other dogs went) ... and if he's alive, I'm guessing Amy Pond lived (maybe it WAS Amy and the Doctor rescued her and the dogs?) . So that kind of horrible "nature eats the weak alive" moment was gone.
Similarly we aren't allowed to develop an attachment to Buck's original family so him being separated from them has no teeth. The themes of animal abuse are really off screen. I think they always did a cut away to a shadow when the dog got hit. There's a bloodless dog fight.
BadGuy(tm) gets a kind of cartoonish end that would make Denethor from the film version of Return of the King go, "Well, that was kind of silly."
Overall, the tone of the movie made me really surprised this wasn't Disney, if that tells you anything about it.
Harrison Ford did a decent job, but I wouldn't have been surprised if I'd seen Andy Serkis credited as Buck in the credits because again, Not a Real Dog.
But it was fun and had some really beautiful wilderness visuals.
Claire, however, cried the whole time because the dog reminded her of Bruce and the old man reminded her of her deceased great grandpa (and in the end ... spoilers ... he dies) ... so this was a sad movie for her in spite of the watering down of all the themes of abuse, the harshness of nature, survival of only the strong, and human greed.
My take: if you have a kid who wants to watch a cartoony dog and is not traumatized by the loss of an apparently dog-like big orange cat and a relative who she remembers as looking like Harrison Ford, this is not a bad popcorn flick to take them too.
It even has some nice messages about kindness and cooperation being better than brute strength (which my gut says is not very Jack London, but okay), so it's very feel good in spite of a few sadder elements.