Over the past year canines have dominated the cinematic scene – Marley and Me, Bolt, Up,
I do a lot of babysitting, and some of the families I sit for encourage movie watching as a special treat. I know the children I babysit very well, and always like to screen movies before we watch them, as some of the kiddos get scared very easily even with a G or PG rating. With this in mind, I recently added Hotel for Dogs to my Netflix cue, and here is my review.
The producers really pushed hard with their ad campaign on this one, and with the main characters being played by tween sensations Emma Roberts and Jake T. Austin, this Nickelodeon-produced flick is sure to have children begging to see it or rent it – smaller parts are played by stars like Don Cheadle, Kevin Dillon and Lisa Kudrow.
This is certainly not an amazing cinematic production, but if you have some chores you need to do around the house, put this in the DVD player and you’ll have an 1.5 hours of uninterrupted time on your hands as your kids get carried through the fur of one slap stick routine after another. I’d say it is age appropriate for 6+ year olds (younger with adult supervision and discussion).
The film relies on exceptionally well trained dogs performing adorable tricks and antics to keep the viewer interested, though I found the dogs performance tended to outweigh the human acting. I would say this is a very child/family friendly movie, but parents should know the main characters are an orphaned brother and sister living in foster care, skirting around the law, and there are some references to dead parents – though not overly emotional.
The premise of the movie siblings Andi and Bruce (played by Roberts and Austin) have spent years as orphans bounce from foster parent to foster parent as they fend for themselves in the child welfare program. Somehow managing to keep their family dog hidden from each foster family since their parents’ death, the kids continuously get in trouble with the law. In a what is portrayed as an unsympathetic foster system, a kindhearted case worker named Bernie (Don Cheadle), helps the kids stay together, but with each law broken by the siblings, and each failed foster family, their odds of staying together much longer are dwindling.
Wanting nothing more than to escape from their current foster parents (played by Kudrow and Dillon) Andi and Bruce turn to the streets, where they come up with illegal and immoral ways of making money for dog chow. One night, while running from the police (surprisingly for a crime they did not commit), the duo hide in an abandoned hotel (clearly a very high end one), where two stray dogs happen to be living. After seeing their own dog is happy with these strays, Andi and Bruce decide this would be a great place to temporarily hide their own dog from their foster parents.
One thing leads to another and the siblings enlist their motley crew of friends to collect a variety of dogs off the streets to prevent them from being euthanized by the evil animal control. The Hotel for Dogs is created as a sort of orphanage for the unwanted strays find refuge. Andi, as the motherly sister and Bruce, as the geeky boy with a talent for building gadgets, are a duo capable of cheerfully caring (a term I use loosely) for what seems to be hundreds of dogs. With the Hotel for Dogs up and running, the kids and their friends care for the dogs by using all sorts of gimmicky contraptions – old seats and doors from cars allow dogs to sit with their heads out the window while large fans blow in their faces, automated feeding systems ensure meals while the kids are at school, and a dog bathroom bags the poop and dispenses it into a dumpster all make for not so funny slap-stick comedy that elementary aged kids will lap up. Behind all the dog fur and crazy gadgets, the kids know at any moment, one misstep could mean their separation in the foster system, and all of the dogs sent to the merciless pound.
Andi and Bruce’s story is sweet and heartfelt, and it should be the center of the movie, but their struggle to care for each other and remain a family is all but ignored as the weak adaptation of a Lois Duncan novel does little more than make you laugh at the dogs. The canines really steal the show, and the plot of the movie is brushed over from start to finish. The director, Thor Freudenthal, took an enjoyable break from the computer generated stunts so many animal films rely on, and used real dogs in every scene. There is something to be said for the large cast of canines (over 40 dogs were used in the film) and their amazingly complex stunts. However, all of that training, and those incredible dogs and great camera work were lost with a brushed over plot, and a film that will most likely bore any adult.
While the canine cast is sure to impress, the human cast severely lacks in talent. Clearly cast only for their immense Nickelodeon child fan base, Roberts and Austin were less than stellar, and easily upstaged by the dogs. I’m not sure how Cheadle, Dillon, and Kudrow were convinced to sign on to this film, but the acting talent across the board was lacking and character development was almost non-existent.
There is no drinking or smoking in the movie, consumerism really isn’t an issue (except for all food being Pedigree), and the language is very mild – “stupid” is probably the worst word used in the movie. Sex is a non-issue though there is some flirting and one couple kisses and another girl gives a boy a little peck. The movie relies on some mild slapstick violence and scariness with characters stepping in poop or falling down.
I took issue with a few of the references of foster care being “awful”. It bothers me that the children had no morals when it came to obeying laws. To raise money the siblings do some questionable things – at one point they pawn fake cell phones. The whole issue of being squatters in an abandoned building is brushed over and coated with slapstick comedy. Like many dog movies, this one portrays shelters and dog pounds as cruel, a place where animals go to die after receiving horrifying care, and animal control officers are portrayed as dog-hating Neanderthals.
The film not-so-subtly denounces euthanizing the ever growing stray dog population, but then tries to humor the audience with a pair of strays and their cute, but large litter of puppies. If euthanasia is not the answer, I’m not sure what this film is suggesting is, because they clearly aren’t considering spaying and neutering as a means to control stray animal populations. At one point, the kids break into the pound to “rescue” the dogs, and then later lure the dogs across county lines to “safety” with hot dogs dragging behind a truck. First, I’m pretty sure breaking into a city building and stealing dogs is considered a felony. Second, having 40+ dogs running through busy traffic chasing after some hot dogs is never smart – I don’t even want to know the leash laws that may have been broken. Third, I was bothered by the ease in which the movie portrayed caring for dogs. Not once was vet care mentioned, the children got dog food in questionable ways, stole from their foster parents, and broke numerous laws. The dogs, with their gadget bathroom, never were walked, and had little human interaction – I’m sorry but a catapult throwing tennis balls is no substitution for good care. Lastly, the children have no real repercussions for their actions.
With out spoiling it, the movie concludes with the public realizing how many homeless animals exist, and people rallying behind the children’s efforts to help the dogs. Overall, the movie does have a positive message that young people can make a difference in their communities, and I hope the humor of the dogs outweighs any inclination a child might have to try something similar on their own. If you want to pass the time, and keep your kids occupied, this is a good movie for children. I do suggest you talk to your kids after about the iffy decisions the characters make in this movie, and about over population of homeless animals. It is important to educate children about the responsibilities of pet ownership, which I believe should always be a lifelong commitment.