Generally speaking, predictability is a bad thing when it comes to judging a film. However, those parents whose children were traumatized by the shamelessly exploitative Marley & Me will find the formulaic reliability of Hotel for Dogs to be positively innovative. So, no dogs die in this film, and no legs are visibly humped either. Since this film’s target audience is the elementary school range, there is a fair amount of toilet humor, but that’s nothing expected when it comes to a dog-centered film. First-time director Thor Freudenthal and his three screenwriters (Jeff Lowell, Bob Schooley and Mark McCorkle) have very loosely adapted the book by Lois Duncan. To be accurate, the filmmakers have pretty much nabbed the book’s title and departed from the source material otherwise. The result is a respectable family outing that the children in the audience will enjoy the hell out of, and, while this is not an extraordinary film, it does successfully make the human-canine connection, unlike that aforementioned other dog movie.
During the opening scene of Hotel for Dogs, the DreamWorks shtick really pops out when the film’s lead canine, a street-smart Jack Russell terrier named Friday, trots down a city sidewalk with his sense of smell in the lead. This dog’s point-of-view is rather promising in these few moments but is quickly abandoned once we meet Friday’s owners, 16-year old Andi (Emma Roberts) and 11-year old Bruce (Jake T. Austin). As orphaned siblings, Andi and Bruce have been bounced around the foster home circuit since their parents died three years ago. For this entire time, they’ve been covertly caring for Friday and keeping him hidden from their various caregivers. The children’s latest set of foster parents, Lois (Lisa Kudrow) Carl (Kevin Dillon) are, to be kind about it, a set of rather Dickensian characters that have no interest in nurturing anything other than their musical aspirations. These two are clearly doing the foster parent thing to get that monthly check from the state, and they make it abundantly clear, through locked refrigerators and constant interrogations, that the two siblings are not welcome in their home. Of course, these wannabe rock stars are far from the ideal foster parents, but, as their case worker, Bernie (Don Cheadle), tells Andi and Bruce, it is extremely difficult to place older siblings in an optimal home. As the conscious adult in the entire film, Bernie sympathizes with the children’s plight and strongly figures into the story’s resolution.
The film’s action is largely driven by Andi and Bruce’s struggle to care for Friday without being discovered by their asshole foster parents. The children do engage in some unorthodox behavior to earn the money to feed their dog, and, by all means, they aren’t perfect children. However, these really are good kids, and their orphaned status and constantly shifting sets of foster parents help them empathize with the stray dogs that come into their lives. Just as these dogs have been abandoned by their owners and have little chance on the pet adoption front, Andi and Bruce don’t make the top of most couples’ adoption lists either. As Andi hears from a pet store employee, Dave (Johnny Simmons), “Customers only want puppies.” Ain’t that the truth.
When Andi and Bruce’s scruffy little hellion gets lost one day, the children discover his makeshift doggie family inside an abandoned hotel right in the middle of a crowded metropolitan area. Of course, the hotel still has running water, electricity, and most of its original furnishings intact, but we’ll let that one go. Bruce, who is something of a budding inventor, whips up a series of gadgets designed to feed, entertain, and toilet the three dogs that now live in the hotel. Then, a couple of pet store employees, Dave (Johnny Simmons) and Heather (Kyla Pratt) and a neighborhood kid, Mark (Troy Gentile) step in to help out. Before long, Andi and Bruce acquire more stray dogs and set about rescuing most of their city’s strays. Lots of “cute” moments are to be had with scenes of dogs on treadmills and a mini-amusement park where the dogs pretend to ride with their heads sticking out of car windows and enjoy the fan-generated wind. Some of these inventions that would make Rube Goldberg drool, but it’s not all fun and games.Hotel for Dogs doesn’t gloss over the reality of what happens to stray animals but it doesn’t linger on these moments too long. With that said, some of the camera shots of dogs inside the pound are temporarily wrenching, but everything ends on a favorable note.
The cast of the film, other than the sixty or so dogs, is rather uneven. Yes, Don Cheadle is in this, but at least he doesn’t embarrass himself, unlike Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon with their exaggerated buffoonery. The always reliable Cheadle inhabits his character with a dignified stance, instead of merely acting like the typical A-list actor who’s just popping into a children’s film to please his own children or collect an easy paycheck. It’s easy to roll one’s eyes and wonder why Cheadle didn’t have anything better to do than appear in Hotel For Dogs, but I’d rather have Cheadle’s stately presence here than that of, say, John Goodman or Ben Stiller. Jake T. Austin gives a surprisingly touching performance, but Emma Roberts, as in Aquamarine and Nancy Drew, lacks the necessary on-screen confidence to make her a convincing leading lady. Oh, sure, she’s the niece of Julia Roberts, who is just about as overrated as they come in A-list Hollywood, but whatever Julia has done to justify her continued career, Emma certainly did not inherit.
Also, just to end this review with a semi-scathing jotting, I do believe that we have reached a cinematic saturation point for Tomoyasu Hotei’s “Battle Without Honor or Humanity,” no matter how cool the song happens to be. So, filmmakers, there shall be no more of that. Carry on.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma and can be found at agentbedhead.com.It's a Doggie Dog World
Film | January 20, 2009 | Comments ()