Friday, January 16, 2009

"Follow the sausage!" A Review of "Hotel For Dogs"

Have you ever noticed how many movies and books (and movies based on books) for kids are about orphans, and other kids with no real ties to families? Stories like “Harry Potter”, “A Series of Unfortunate Events”, and even good old “Pippi Longstocking” are about kids who have lost their families one way or another. Do you get tired of that trope in kid's tales? I hope not, because “Hotel for Dogs” is another one.

“Hotel for Dogs”, based on the book by Lois Duncan, is the story of a brother and sister; eleven year old Bruce (Jake T. Austin: “Wizards of Waverly Place”) and sixteen year old Andi (Emma Roberts: “Unfabulous”, “Nancy Drew”). Bruce is a young engineering genius, able to turn normal household items into fantastic Rube Goldberg devices, and he's not a bad lock-picker either. Andi is...well, she's cute.

Andi and Bruce are currently in their fifth foster home in two years; this time it's a pair of talentless wannabe rockers, the Scudders. Hag-like Lois (Lisa Kudrow: “Friends”), who keeps a padlock on the pantry to keep the kids from getting food, and clueless Carl (Kevin Dillon: “Entourage”, “Poseidon”), who is more interested in playing guitar than caring for the kids. While not really villains per say, they are quite unlikable; even the kids' social worker, Bernie (Don Cheadle: “Hotel Rwanda”, “Crash”), wants to get the kids away from them.

The kids have been hiding their pet dog, Friday, as they have moved from foster home to foster home, and after a scare with the pound, they come to the conclusion that they need to find him a proper home. While running from the police, the kids find themselves in the Hotel Francis Drake. The hotel looks like it was in the middle of a remodel when everyone just decided it was too much trouble, locked the doors, went home, and never came back.

The hotel is not as abandoned as it looks though; there are two inhabitants, a pair of dogs that Bruce dubs Lenny and Georgia. Friday takes to the other two dogs instantly, and a temporary solution seems to be found. They can keep all three dogs in the Francis Drake.

Of course now they have three dogs to feed instead of one, and Andi and Bruce have no money to speak of. Enter Dave (Johnny Simmons: “The Spirit”, “Evan Almighty”), a kind-hearted employee at the Primary Paws pet store who is willing to help them with with food, but they need to take care of three more dogs that the pet store owner is threatening to send to the pound where they will be destroyed.

The trio of kids is soon joined by Heather (Kyla Pratt: the “Doctor Doolittle” movies, “The Proud Family”), Dave's co-worker at the pet store, and Mark (Troy Gentile: “Drillbit Taylor”, “Good Luck Chuck”), who works at a nearby shop and can't help but notice the distinctive Primary Paws doggy delivery truck frequently parking outside the abandoned hotel. Together, the five kids turn the Hotel Francis Drake into a doggy paradise thanks to Bruce and his machines which handle everything from feeding, and waste disposal, to simulating car rides, and throwing sticks.

Of course the good times cannot go on forever, and things go horribly, but adorably, wrong. When the truth comes out, it becomes a race against time for the kids to try and save their new family (because Heather, Mark, and Dave don't have any apparent family either). All I will say about the ending is that you should expect to hear a lot of “Aaaaawwww” from your fellow moviegoers.

“Hotel For Dogs” is good family entertainment. There's no violence and no cursing, and the most objectionable things in it are a small number of jokes about excrement and urine. While few of the jokes are going to go over a child's head (for example, the two dogs named Georgia and Lenny, Lenny being the big dumb one), the humour and overall storytelling are not too advanced, nor are they the sort that leaves you feeling your IQ oozing out your ears.

This is a kid's film, and you will need to make certain allowances for that. There are a large number of inconsistencies and logic problems in the film. Lost dog fliers appear out of nowhere, Dave and Heather's boss doesn't seem to have a problem with both of them not coming to work, nor with Dave's constant use of the delivery truck. The hotel's power and water work, and at one point you even see what appears to be a reasonably well stocked hotel kitchen.

Then there's the cops and animal control officers. The cops are there purely for menace; at one point while chasing Bruce and Andi early in the film they give up the search after about five seconds when the siblings hide behind a door, and during the big chase at the end the police regularly disappear and reappear in different locations, so that by the end of the chase there are actually no police still chasing the truck with the young heroes in it. As for the animal control officers, basically being the villains of the piece, they are at least twice as macho as the police. They treat the dogs and the kids with utter disdain worthy of any cartoon villain.

Of course all of the above issues are of the sort that tend to be omnipresent in children's movies, and kids aren't going to notice them anyway. One thing that might be a little more difficult for some children to deal with is the concept of putting dogs to sleep. One of the reasons the kids are trying to house the dogs is that the pound puts them down after seventy-two hours. The movie handles this subject fairly well, never really coming right out and saying the dogs are killed, but certainly hinting at it overtly, including uses of the terms “destroy” and “no-kill shelter”. Younger kids probably may not even notice this, but savvier younglings might start asking you some uncomfortable questions.

“Hotel for Dogs” is a reasonably fast paced piece of light entertainment that the whole family can enjoy (or at least not feel mentally insulted by), and it's a nice kid-friendly alternative to the glut of racist seniors, homicidal miners, and overweight rappers populating theater screens this weekend. So if you are looking for something to take the kids to this weekend, or you would just like to see a movie full of cute puppies, then this is the film for you.

“Hotel for Dogs” will be going walkies in heaters nationwide starting today, January 16th.

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