I have two animated versions of Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild.” The first is a Japanese feature made by Toei Animation in 1981 and initially shown in an 85-minute edition, apparently on television only, according to the Anime News Network. It was released on home video in the U.S., in a cut, 67-minute English-dubbed version and may have been shown on syndicated TV here as well. That version, a VHS edition from Vestron Video, is the one I have. I also have an Irish-Canadian version co-produced by Animundi Productions and Emerald City Productions in 1990 that is 46 minutes long and was also apparently made for television, although I can find very little info about it on the web. It’s included in the DVD set, “Classic Adventures 10-Story Set,” that I cited in my entry on “Swiss Family Robinson” here on November 17.
After watching both versions I went back and re-read Jack London’s original story and was happy to find that both versions hew pretty closely to the book. Live-action film versions of the story tend to focus on one or more of the human characters and make them the protagonists, relegating the main character, Buck, a big dog who’s half- St. Bernard and half Scotch shepherd, to supporting status. There are several human characters in London’s story, but they come and go in the life of Buck, as they do in these animated versions, although John Thornton, who rescues Buck from certain death late in the story and is the last human he has a relationship with, plays a key role in both animated films (as well as many live-action versions).
Several incidents from the story are featured in both animated versions, including the theft of Buck from his home by an employee of his owner, seeking quick cash for gambling, and sale to a broker sending dogs to Alaska to pull sleds for miners participating in the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-99. (The extremely cold temperatures of the region meant that certain breeds of dog would make more reliable work animals than horses.) We see Buck’s ongoing rivalry with Spitz, the leader of the dog team Buck is sold to, culminating in their fight to the death. We see Buck’s near death at the hands of an inexperienced trio from the east that has loaded too much on their sled with too little food for the dogs on the long journey. We see the wager made by Thornton that Buck can successfully pull a thousand-pound load on a sled stuck in the ice for a hundred yards. We see Buck answer the call of the wild and join a pack of wolves.
Buck vs. Spitz, 1981:
Buck vs. Spitz, 1990:
The Irish-Canadian version includes some incidents not featured in the anime version, including Buck’s daring rescue of Thornton after he gets swept away by rapids heading toward a waterfall. We also see an attack on the camp by wild, starving huskies who eat most of the food before they are driven off by the mail carriers and Buck and his team. There’s also an incident where Buck attacks and nearly kills a barroom miscreant who’d started a fight with Thornton. The witnesses call for a “Miners’ Court” to dispense justice on the spot and determine if Buck should be destroyed or not. This version also shows Buck’s kids (Puppies? Cubs? Both?) from a wolf mate, while the anime does not.
Both versions conclude with the murderous attack on Thornton’s camp by robbers of the gold he and his partners have mined and Buck’s subsequent wreaking of vengeance on the killers. In the anime version, the killers are other miners. In the novel, they’re Yeehat Indians (a tribe reportedly made up for the story by London), although they’re never described in any way. In the Irish-Canadian version, they’re Indians, but they look like Plains Indians with feathers and buckskin and ride horses, completely unlike Indians in the colder reaches of Canada.
It’s the one really ludicrous note in the film.
As one might expect, the anime version is much more violent and offers a significant amount of bloodshed, particularly in the fights between Buck and other dogs or between Buck and a wolf pack leader who sees him as a threat.
It presents quite a harsh view of life in the wild north, where “the law of club and fang” predominates. It’s a rather unusual choice to market for a children’s audience in the U.S. Not that I would have minded when I was a kid. I’m sure I would have liked it. But in Japan it would have been shown to a general prime-time TV audience and not with only children in mind. Granted, it was part of a wave of anime adaptations of American and European literary works that were quite popular in Japan, with many aimed specifically at children (as seen in the World Masterpiece Theater series which I cited in my piece on “Swiss Family Robinson”).
The VHS copy I have is not the best copy and is noticeably soft throughout. (Forgive the lesser quality of the screen grabs as a result.) The narration is virtually nonstop and the music score is much jauntier than it ought to be, with upbeat brass melodies and occasional bursts of electric guitars. Also, it has been cut by 18 minutes, so I’m curious as to what was missing.
However, the animation of the dogs in action in the anime version is quite good and is certainly much more fluidly animated than the human characters.
The design of the characters is much stronger in the anime than in the other version, which is much more simply and cartoonishly designed, particularly the human characters:
The landscapes are good in both versions.
I like both films and I’m grateful they compelled me to go back and read the book again, for the first time in many years. It’s quite a readable and compelling piece of work. I don’t know that I’ve read anything that quite gets so firmly into the head of another species. Granted, one can accuse London of “humanizing” the dogs, as Theodore Roosevelt reportedly so accused, but to anyone who’s ever owned a dog, it’s not that big a dramatic leap now, is it? Besides, the book conveys the snow-covered landscape quite vividly and describes the hardships of traversing it in sub-zero temperatures and the dangers when the ice thaws, as one ill-fated group of travelers finds out. Much of the dialogue in the Irish-Canadian version is taken verbatim from the book. Both versions are heavily narrated with the narration written to simplify London’s prose.
One thing struck me in the anime version. There is this bit of narration early on: “Dogs were stolen from all over the North American continent and sold into service in this harsh northern land.” There is no mention of this in the book. It would seem to me that if there’d been an epidemic of dog-napping in the late 1890s, it would have generated big news and provoked some kind of governmental action to prevent it. Granted, there was no Federal Bureau of Investigation and no animal rights infrastructure, governmental or otherwise, at the time, so the burden would have fallen on local law enforcement. Still, I’m curious to know if it was ever acknowledged as a widespread problem and addressed in any meaningful way. I did a Google search and only found this quote, on a website labeled “Alaska’s Winter Mails: The Gold Rush Era, 1898-1911”:
During the gold rush era, dogs were in short supply and were literally worth their weight in the precious metal. Any and all breeds that could be obtained, including many stolen from points farther south, were pressed into service.
The director of the anime version, Kozo Morishita, worked on a lot of classic anime, including some that has been seen in the U.S. His series, “Armored Fleet Dairugger XV,” from 1982, was used in the construction of the series, “Voltron,” which ran on American television in the mid-1980s. He also worked as a director on the original “Transformers” series and the animated feature spin-off, TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE. More recently, he directed the theatrical feature, BUDDHA: THE GREAT DEPARTURE (2011), based on Osamu Tezuka’s epic manga series. I saw it at Japan Society in New York and reviewed it for IMDB:
The directors of the Irish-Canadian version are Al Guest and Jean Mathieson, who are credited on IMDB with a handful of animated adaptations of literary works, including “Phantom of the Opera” (1988) and “Les Misérables” (1988). None of their other works are included in my “Classic Adventures” set. IMDB offers no mention, however, of either version of “Call of the Wild.”
Finally, there was also an anime version of Jack London’s “White Fang,” although I’ve never had access to a copy and don’t believe it was ever dubbed into English.