Quick Review: The Call of the Wild

The Call of the Wild
Music composed by John Powell
Music conducted by John Powell
Additional music and arrangements by Batu Sener, Paul Mounsey
Music orchestrated by John Ashton Thomas, Mark Graham, Andrew Kinney, Randy Kerber, Rick Giovinazzo, Pete Anthony, Jon Kull, Jeff Atmajian
Music recorded at Newman Scoring Stage, 5 Cat Studios
Album running time:  67 minutes
Available on Hollywood Records (digital only)

A new John Powell score is a rare thing and even more when it's not animated. Like many, I was impressed with his recent score to Solo (2018) and his conclusion to the How to Train your Dragon trilogy. With The Call of the Wild, Powell reunites with director Chris Sanders (he directed the first Dragon). This is a live-action first for Sanders, and his other animated films have equally great scores by Alan Silvestri.

Taking place during the 1890's Yukon Gold Rush, Powell incorporates a lot of folk instruments and styles into the score. Wake the Girls opens with the folksy instruments - harmonium, accordion, banjo, whistle and fiddles. It's a lively introduction to the main theme for Buck which gets a few slight twists in the track. Train North sets a sinister and tense tone, with Buck's theme on horn before calm strings and choir join. Skagway, Alaska brings the folk instruments back with statements of Buck's theme used along the way. Snowy Climb adds a theme for the sled dog team which is often used in the action cues - but it's the soaring Buck's theme that takes over midway. Powell mixes the modern and folk in First Sledding Attempt, underscoring the dog team working together.

The Ghost Wolf of Dreams features some unique woodwind sounds to highlight the mystical wolf that Buck longs to be. Joining the Team is scored with mainly folk instrumentation, expanding on the working tune heard earlier and grows triumphant near the end. Ice Rescue brings the choir in for the tense and heroic moments and relaxes with a main theme statement.

Sometimes Nature's Cruel and Gods Fight underscores the fight between Buck and original lead dog Spitz. Much of the cue involves the large choir chanting and orchestra swirling. The album highlight is Buck Takes the Lead. Utilizing a mixture of themes, Powell is able to encapsulate this thrilling part of Buck's journey. The triumphant soaring version of the theme should bring a smile to many faces.

We Carry Love builds on the main theme with tender strings, guitar and woodwinds. The sentimental side continues with Couldn't Find the Words as we get to know Harrison Ford's John Thornton and his musical theme. The soaring version of Buck's theme also briefly returns. Overpacked Sled introduces the new greedy villain - with the folk instruments returning with a bit of dark growling atmosphere. It transitions to a lovely moment for strings and solo guitar. Newfangled Telegram gets some melancholic scoring as Buck must split from Perrault.

In My Bed? underscores the beginning of a friendship between Thornton and Buck, and we hear sweet statements of Thornton's theme. Buck & Thornton's Big Adventure is another fantastic album highlight. It passes between slow and unrestrained thematic statements of Buck's theme. Finding Bears and Love in the Woods continues Buck's journey in the wilderness with some lilting folk instrument writing. They're All Gone continues Thornton's material for guitar and piano and is simple and effective.

Rewilding is energetic right away with large brass and choir moments and Buck's theme at the end. Animal Nature is calm and reflective with woodwinds, strings and guitars. Come Say Goodbye has some emotional moments with Thornton's theme clashing with the sounds of the wilderness. What an Adventure opens with a string and guitar tremolo texture. It's a lovely musical payoff when the strings, choir and solo flute come in. The album ends with The Call of the Wild, full of large new arrangements of previous thematic material.

This score has really grown on me.  I love the folk instrumentation that adds just enough flavor.  In that regard it reminds me of the Celtic influences in How to Train Your Dragon (2010) and Spanish in the underrated Ferdinand (2017). But speaking of those, this score has so many melodic and harmonic Powell-isms that sound like little bits that fell off those scores.  Your level of 'Powell sensitivity' may vary.  Director Chris Sanders seems to understand film music - where does it work and how can it shine.  There are several dialogue-less sections and montages that strongly feature the music and we should be thankful.  One aspect of the music is to carry the emotional narrative of Buck.  Yes, the CGI dog is much talked about, but Powell's music helps bring Buck to life.

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