A sled dog struggles for survival in the wilds of the Yukon.
During the late 19th century, Buck, a large, gentle St. Bernard/Scotch Collie, lives contentedly with his master, Judge Miller, in Santa Clara, California. One night, Buck is abducted and shipped to the Yukon aboard a freighter. During the voyage, a crew member beats him as a means of discipline. After arriving, Buck returns a dropped harmonica to a man named John Thornton, moments before being sold to Perrault and his assistant Francoise for their dog sled to deliver mail across the Yukon. Perrault hopes that with Buck, he can make the long trek to the mail depot before the deadline. Buck is introduced to the other dogs, including the vicious pack leader, a husky named Spitz.
Throughout their travels, Buck gains the loyalty and trust of Francoise and the other sled dogs, antagonizing Spitz. Buck begins experiencing ancestral spiritual visions of a black wolf that acts as his guide throughout their travels. One night, Buck catches then releases a rabbit. Spitz kills it before attacking Buck to assert his dominance. Spitz seems to win, until the rest of the pack encourage Buck. Buck pins Spitz down, displacing him as pack leader; Spitz then disappears into the wild. Perrault grudgingly makes Buck the lead when no other dog assumes the position. Buck’s speed and strength allow the sled to arrive with the mail on time. There, Thornton hands over a letter he has written to his former wife expressing his feelings about their dead son. When Perrault returns, he learns the mail route is being replaced by the telegraph, forcing him to sell the dogs. Hal, a mean-spirited and inexperienced gold prospector, buys the pack and gradually works them to exhaustion carrying a heavy load in weather unsuitable for sledding.
The exhausted dogs stop to rest before Hal can force them to cross an unstable frozen lake. When Buck refuses to move, Hal threatens to shoot him. Thornton appears and rescues Buck while Hal forces the other sled dogs to cross the lake. Under Thornton’s care, Buck recovers. Later, at a saloon, Thornton is attacked by Hal, who reveals the dogs managed to run off leaving him with nothing. Witnessing the scene, Buck attacks Hal who is subsequently thrown out. Buck and Thornton then travel beyond the Yukon map where they can freely live in the wild. They come across an abandoned cabin in an open valley and settle in. Meanwhile, Hal relentlessly hunts them, believing Thornton is hiding gold.
In the open wilderness, Thornton and Buck bond over their daily activities, primarily fishing and gold panning. Throughout their time together, Buck is drawn to a female white wolf. Going back and forth between Thornton and the white wolf, Buck is conflicted by his domesticated life with Thornton and his place with the wolf pack that the female belongs to. Thornton believes it is time to return home and tells Buck he is leaving in the morning, and to come and say good-bye. Buck heads into the forest and sleeps beside the white wolf, clearly conflicted. Hal subsequently finds and shoots Thornton. Buck returns and kills Hal by pushing him into the cabin, which has caught on fire. Thornton wants Buck to live for himself. He reassures him with his final words, “It’s okay, boy. You’re home.”
The next morning, Buck returns to the wilderness. There, he mates and has offspring with the white wolf and becomes the pack leader, fully embracing the call of the wild.
The film is narrated throughout by John Thornton (Harrison Ford). The film opens around the time of the Alaskan Gold Rush. A massive dog named Buck lives on a palatial estate in the mainland US. He is clumsy, spoiled, destructive and, most of all, disobedient. After eating all the food at a party held by his master Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford), he is forced to sleep outside as punishment. While there, he is abducted by a thief who sells the dog to traders. The traders ship Buck up to Alaska to sell him as a sled dog.
While at the Alaskan port, Buck comes across John Thornton for the first time and returns John’s harmonica to him after it falls out of his pocket. He is then sold to a man named Perrault (Omar Sy) who works for the Postal Service. Perrault and his wife Francois (Cara Gee) add Buck to their dog sled team that transports them across the Alaskan wilderness to deliver the mail.
Initially, Buck is clumsy and overwhelmed. The leader of the sled dogs, Spitz, is cruel to Buck and the rest of the dogs. However, Buck soon starts enjoying his new life and begins getting in touch with his wild wolf-like spirit (portrayed as a giant black wolf). Buck gains the favor of the other sled dogs by treating them kindly and endears himself to his new masters when he saves Francois after she falls through the ice of a frozen lake. Spitz decides to attack Buck to re-establish his leadership, but Buck fully embraces his wild side and defeats Spitz. Spitz wanders off into the wilderness, disgraced by his defeat.
Buck takes his position as the head of the sled dogs and gets Perrault and Francois to make their first-ever on-time delivery. The last stop is the town where John lives. Buck delays their departure long enough for John to hand a letter to his wife to Perrault.
Although Buck loves his new masters and his pack of dogs, Perrault and Francois are dismissed when their services are replaced by the telegraph. They are forced to sell their dogs before returning to Canada. The dogs are sold to a cruel man named Hal (Dan Stevens). Hal and his friends Mercedes (Karen Gillan) and Charles (Colin Woodell) intend to go into the wilderness and make their fortune finding gold. It is obvious that they are completely unprepared for the rigors of living in the wilderness. John tries to talk them out of departing, but Hal and his friends take off.
Realizing that summer is coming earlier than expected (which will render the sled dogs useless over the non-snowy terrain), John tracks them in an attempt to convince them to turn back. When he catches up to them, he finds Buck having fainted and the rest of the dogs malnourished. He is unable to dissuade Hal and his compatriots from abandoning their journey but is allowed to take Buck back to town with him.
Buck recuperates and John’s history is revealed. His son died at a young age and he and his wife grew apart. To escape his grief, John journeyed to Alaska and frequently drinks his sorrows away.
Sometime later Hal stumbles back into town, finds John drinking in a bar, and punches him. Hal accuses John of sabotaging him, saying he has found no gold and lost all of his dogs in the wilderness. The townspeople throw Hal out of the bar after Buck barges in to protect John – his new master.
At home, Buck buries John’s alcohol in the snow. After sobering up, John tells Buck that he came to Alaska because his son was obsessed with visiting Alaska and trekking to an uncharted part of the State. Now sober and having a companion in Buck, John decides to venture out into the uncharted territory in honor of his son. He and Buck survive a dangerous canoe trip to the wilderness. They find a long-abandoned cabin and decide to stay there. Meanwhile, Hal learns that John and Buck have departed and begins to track them.
John discovers that the river near his cabin is full of gold and starts panning it. Buck sees a female white wolf in the woods and begins tracking her. Buck eventually saves one of the pack members from drowning and the pack begins treating Buck as one of his own. Although Buck spends all day with the wolves, he returns every night to stay with John. Meanwhile, John finds peace for his tortured soul and decides he wants to return to his home and try and salvage his old life. He also realizes that Buck has found his true home with the wolves.
On John’s last night in the wilderness, Hal arrives and confronts him with a loaded rifle. The two struggle for it until Hal manages to shoot John and then demand the gold. John gives all the gold he had collected to Hal, but Hal won’t be satisfied until both John and Buck are dead. Buck, who had gone off with the wolfpack that night, hears gunshots and rushes back to John. Hal tried to intimidate Buck with the club, but the dog overcomes his fear and grabs the club away from Hal. Buck then pushes Hal into the burning cabin, which promptly collapses on top of him. Buck goes to prop up a mortally wounded John. He gets one last look at the meadow with Buck before succumbing to his wound.
In narration, John tells the audience that Buck has since become a legend. He has become leader of the wolfpack and has puppies with the white wolf. But he assures the audience that Buck is a real dog. Buck occasionally passes the burnt cabin and remembers his friend. And although John hopes that he was able to show Buck love, he knows that Buck has truly found happiness when he heeded…THE CALL OF THE WILD.