Rating: Rated PG (Mild coarse language)
This is a story of two orphaned children, Andi (Emma Roberts) and Bruce (Jake Austin), her younger brother, and is a film adaption of the Louis Duncan novel of the same name. Andi and Bruce are under the care of two unsuitable foster-parents – their fifth in succession - and they own a pet dog, Friday, who they have been trying to hide for three years. Friday is a permanently hungry Jack Russell Terrier. Desperate to find a place for Friday, they find a new home for him in an abandoned hotel, occupied by two other dogs. Bruce happens to be something of a mechanical genius and he begins constructing devices to make Friday, and his friends (soon to arrive at the hotel), happy in the new home. The barking dogs start to make the neighbours suspicious and Bruce’s job is to invent more contraptions to make the dogs content. The various breeds in the movie demonstrate well-known behavioural problems for dog-owners. There is Shep, the Border Collie, who constantly herds; Romeo, the Chinese Crested, who is amorously inclined towards Juliet, the poodle; Cooper, an English Bulldog who wants to chew every object in sight; Georgia the compulsive fetcher who is looked after by Lenny, the Bull Mastiff, who has to gaze out of open windows in order to be happy; and a Beauceron, who has problems with being a guard dog. All of the dogs offer great testimony to the competence of their trainers; and they were all coached by professionals to handle the mechanical devices that Bruce builds to keep their neuroses in check. To use words in the film, it is “awesome” to see the dogs queue up in assembly-line fashion for feeding and defecating, two key habits which keep every dog owner earnestly pre-occupied on a daily basis. The devices are necessary to quieten the dogs and make it look as if there are no dogs in the hotel, and the dog catchers lurking outside are meant to think there is nothing for them to catch.
The people involved in this film (from the Director and Producer right down to the Actors) obviously love dogs and the movie captures very well the special relationships that can exist between dogs and children. It is refreshing to see that the film is not animated; it is a live action movie and will appeal for just that reason. The movie for the most part uses shelter dogs, which needed to belong to someone. They were collected six months before the movie began and 16 weeks were spent in intensively training them. The movie stresses the belongingness of both the children to others, and the belongingness to the children of the dogs themselves. There is a strong family feel to the movie. Lisa Kudrow, unfortunately, has a very unattractive role as a cantankerous, hippie foster-parent, but Don Cheadle plays warmly the role of a social worker, who tries to keep the kids (and dogs) out of trouble, and who eventually saves the day.
There are some glorious opportunities for attributing a wide range of human feelings and emotions to the animals. Although the plot-line doesn’t go a long way in the movie, and it opts for the surreal in a disappointing sentimental ending, the film’s possibilities are used to great advantage by the Academy-Award nominee special effects coordinator, Michael Lantieri, who produces some very impressive scenes with the dogs; and he is helped ably by Mark Fowler, the animal coordinator for “Marley and Me.” The difference between these two movies is that “Marley and Me” finds its humour in two people trying to cope with a dog who misbehaves appallingly and that no doubt required very considerable training. In this film, most of the humour comes from showing what humans, with the aid of some ingenious devices, can do to shape good behaviour in their dogs and how well the animals can respond.
The film focuses positively on family relationships, and the affectionate bonding, that ties children and their canine friends together, and it has some very funny moments in it. Although it never ever sustains the hilarity of Christopher Guest’s 2000 classic “Best in Show,” it is in the final run a movie that will appeal most to children. But adults will love the final credits where the actors and crew responsible for the movie are all photographed in besotted fashion with their own pets, indicating that, for them at least, their dogs own their world.
Paramount Out January 15, 2009
Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.