Saturday, October 6, 2012

Entertaining, Smart And Well-Developed Hotel For Dogs Opened My 2009 New Movie Reviews High!

The Good: Funny, Cute, Decent characters, Interesting concept, Great animal wrangling
The Bad: Predictable, Dangling character elements
The Basics: Funny, fun and with good messages Hotel For Dogs might be a little predictable, but it is worthwhile and makes for a good time for viewers of all ages!

The thing about having high standards is often then is a small contingent of people who look at your standards, then wait around for a moment they find a chink in your armor, a slip from your moral high ground. We delight in that with politicians, we cringe when directors of our favorite series' mess up, and when it comes to reviewers, there are those who wait around to be able to make big picture comparisons (like "Come on! Hoodwinked! is NOT better than Return Of The Jedi!). I detailed my standards for reviewing some time ago (that article is here!) and since then, I'll occasionally get a note from someone with a comment like that. Because I rate from the perspective (in movies) of the whole medium, for enduring value, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation is in direct competition with Casablanca; I don't curve for comedies or excuse lack of character development for . . . well, anything.

So, when I rate a film like Hotel For Dogs with a 7, it is worth noting right off the bat that I have not lowered my standards or curved the rating for "children's movies." No, on the scale of all films I have ever watched and reviewed, Hotel For Dogs is an above average film in the 7/10 (or slightly more) range. And for those who know me and my reviews, this is just icing on the cake as I am well known for not liking kids (there were many at the screening I attended) and for loathing children's movies.

Hotel For Dogs is just that good.

Andi and Bruce are sister and brother, living in foster care following the deaths of their parents. They live with the somewhat dimwitted Scudders, keeping care of their dog, who is not allowed to be with them, in secret. Chased by Animal Control in Central City and plagued by the police who catch them scamming to earn money to feed their dog, Andi and Bruce find themselves in an abandoned hotel, in the company of two dogs, who their dog immediately bonds with.

Trying to feed the three dogs, Andi and Bruce find themselves in the company of pet shop workers Dave and Heather, who learn about their little dog hotel and contribute with their time, talent and resources from the pet shop. Soon, they are boarding a slew of dogs - part of their operation to rescue all of the strays in the city before Animal Control captures and kills them - and becoming the best of friends. They are joined by Mark and while Andi and Dave grow closer, Bruce illustrates a mechanical genius that makes the abandoned hotel into a dog activity house unlike anything the city has ever seen!

Because they come easiest to mind for me, the negatives. First, this is not the most original movie of all time. It is a feel-good movie that sets up some terribly obvious plot and character points and more or less sees them through. In fact, the only two things that surprised me about Hotel For Dogs was that Heather did not turn out to be related to Bernie (come on, it's a generally predictable movie with more than two black characters in them and it would have been age appropriate, what were the odds?!) and at no point in the movie did the song "Who Let The Dogs Out" get played (thank you, director Thor Freudenthal!). Outside that, the people who get together get together and the resolution between Andi and Bruce and their foster situation is so obvious, I would be surprised if children did not call it.

Second, there is a dangling character element with Heather. Heather has an obvious crush on Dave, who she works with (wonderful acting on the part of Kyla Pratt, by the way, as this is never explicitly articulated in the movie). I can live with there not being too much made of this, but as Dave and Andi become closer and Dave slips further and further from her, Heather never deals with it and as a result, the character arc of Mark and Heather seems like a default relationship.

Third, and maybe this is just something I am ignorant of, I found it problematic that Andi lied about being in foster care when she first met Dave. I mean, this seems to either create or reinforce a stigma I was not aware existed and it makes little sense for the characters in this particular movie. I mean, IF foster care is something kids look down on in their peers, it's pretty hard to not see the kids who feel that way as the [adult expletive deleted]'s in this situation as Andi and Bruce's parents died in an accident. It takes a pretty heartless kid to stand there and mockingly say "Ha ha, you don't have real parents!" "Yeah, well, they died horribly in an accident" and their response not be to feel like either a moron or a horrible person. So that Andi felt the need to lie about not having parents when she met Dave, baffled me. Of course, because it is That Type Of Movie, it all gets resolved by the end.

Finally, the speed of the story necessitates several (at least three come right to mind) montage musical segments where progress is made at an accelerated rate and it's just a lot of footage of dogs running, pooping, eating, etc. This is where Freudenthal should insist to the people at Paramount/Dreamworks that he is accountable to that whomever cut the trailers for Hotel For Dogs never work for him again (though being shot would be preferable, I am THAT sick of over-revealing preview trailers!); the inclusion of footage from those montages in the preview trailer gutted some decent moments of the movie for those of us who saw the preview the night before. We don't need to see the whole movie in the trailer and if part of the movie itself is cut like a movie trailer, then don't stick that part in the trailer!

That said, Hotel For Dogs is pretty wonderful. The characters are interesting, at least Bernie (Andi and Bruce's social worker), Andi and Bruce. It is not explained why Bernie and his wife do not have children and honestly the viewer does not need that explanation. Bernie is, from the very beginning, a decent guy who clearly cares about the children he tries to place.

Similarly, Bruce is a wonderful character who fits this story perfectly. Socially isolated, it is wonderful that the writers (Hotel For Dogs is based upon a book by Lois Duncan, which I have not read, so I am unsure if that is from the book or just from the screenplay) chose not to cheapen his character with any firm human relationships outside the one he has with Andi. He is a mechanical genius and it is refreshing to see young loner characters who are not evil or terribly maladjusted. Instead, he applies himself and makes the concept of Hotel For Dogs an actualized reality. Bruce is quiet, but has a clear love for his sister and animals and he applies that knowledge, desire and innate talent to making the hotel a success.

As well, Andi is a nice mix of protective child-adult (she looks out for Bruce in a very adult way) and girl who just wants to be a girl. Andi is clever, funny and has a big heart. She is played by Emma Roberts, who is being pretty clearly groomed to be the next Anne Hathaway. Roberts has both the plain Hollywood-approved young beauty and quiet strength of Hathaway, but the real common element between them is their ability to play the quiet moments and convey a lot through their body language. Roberts speaks volumes with the flash of her eyes to costar Jake T. Austin (Bruce) and nervous movements of her hands when she steps into situations that would be socially awkward (like entering the party scene). Her smile is appropriately illuminative, but she is able to carry the serious, dramatic moments with appropriate gravitas - i.e. not stepping over into melodrama - when called upon (and being That Type Of Movie, they are there). One only hopes that Roberts treats here career as serious in the way that Hathaway does and smart money would be on her continuing to have a strong, smart career . . . like Hathaway.

Jake T. Austin plays a character who is pretty naturally overshadowed, but he takes the role and does what he can with it very well. When he is not forced to play the part hunched over working on some device or another (it is Bruce who automates the dog hotel with homemade mechanical devices) Austin emotes well in scenes opposite Roberts.

When the opening credits were rolling and I saw Don Cheadle's name come up, I groaned a little because I figured this had to be a sellout role for him, but Cheadle proved me wrong. He knew what he was doing; Bernie's character arc might be predictable and obvious, but Cheadle brings his best to it and makes it work perfectly. Similarly, Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon add to the movie with their performances, as opposed to doing the work for the paycheck (adult actors in kids movies seldom can portray what they need to when they're just taking a job). In fact, the acting is astonishingly good in Hotel For Dogs.

The dogs are all appropriately cute and the animal wrangling on the movie is extraordinary, earning it legitimate praise from me and any other reviewers who see the film. While there are one or two matted or CG-enhanced shots, largely the film is done with actual dogs all together and it makes a difference in the final product.

For adults who might be dreading being dragged to this movie, there is nothing to fear; Hotel For Dogs has a lot for us. Despite the predictability and the sheer number of "awww, cute dog!" shots, there are jokes and concepts that only adults will appreciate (my favorite has to be when Bernie puts up his badge and proudly declares "Social services!" and everyone ignores him). The movie is fun, but it is also surprisingly smart in places and it has a good message (everyone shows up to help and there is a good feel-good "let's all be friends" thing working throughout) that adults could stand to have reinforced as much as kids ought to have it imprinted.

So, yes, if you have a kid, a niece or nephew, or a friend with kids who you'd like to use as a prop so you're not the creepy adult sitting in the theater watching kids movies, grab your young person and take them to Hotel For Dogs. It's worth it.

For other works with Lisa Kudrow, check out my reviews of:
Easy A
The Other Woman


For other movie reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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