So many canines are going potty in the nation's multiplexes this month, what with "Marley & Me" and now the ensemble bowser adventure "Hotel for Dogs," I wouldn't be surprised if Lars Von Trier re-released "Dogville" just for fun. He'd make $10 million before the kids knew what hit 'em.
I love dogs. My kind of animal. They understand my needs, and their owners are kinder, more humane, more intelligent and better-looking than the average non-dog-owning citizenry. I didn't mind "Hotel for Dogs," either: not bad, not great, a little less pushy and grating than the usual. More than the dogs, even, the hotel—retrofitted by the human heroes for maximum Rube Goldberg doggie contraption action—takes center stage.
After bouncing around the foster-care system, 16-year-old Andi (Emma Roberts) and her 11-year-old brother, Bruce (Jake T. Austin), land in the dubious hands of a couple of metal-head rockers (over)played by Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon. The kids' best friend is little Friday, a sweet Jack Russell terrier with a highly developed sense of smell. They keep Friday a secret from their alleged caregivers. One day, in the downtown area of a big city that looks a bit like Los Angeles and a bit more like Backlot Heights, U.S.A., Friday and the kids discover a condemned old hotel where a few strays have set up shop. The kids and their newfound human pals get to work rehabbing the joint, while avoiding the police, and romance blossoms between Andi and the nice kid from the pet shop portrayed by Johnny Simmons.
All this is verrrrry loosely based on Lois Duncan's book, which dealt with far less gimmickry and a more conventional set of teen issues, of the new school/tough transition/local bully variety. The fun onscreen, however, comes largely from Bruce's inventions and gadgets and of course the pooches. I was grateful Roberts and Austin were around to calm things down. They avoid the iCarly School of Acting, i.e., perpetual sarcasm, with an extra layer of sarcasm. Don Cheadle plays the kindly social worker. He's fine. As the Mystery Science Theater guys once said about Gene Hackman, "He's good in everything, isn't he?"
The dogs include a fine three-legged fellow who reminded me of my in-law's old dog, Buddy, and that's the sort of movie we have here. You use it to think about dogs you once knew, or the ones whose company you're enjoying at present. Your kid, meanwhile, uses it for his/her own purposes. Director Thor Freudenthal has precious little finesse—the pounding close-ups of the animals in the dog pound sequences, I'm still a little upset about—but how often do you find a film like this in the neighborhood of finesse?
MPAA rating: PG (for brief mild thematic elements, language and some crude humor).
Running time: 1:40.
Opening: Jan. 16.
Starring: Emma Roberts (Andi); Jake T. Austin (Bruce); Kyla Pratt (Heather); Lisa Kudrow (Lois Scudder); Kevin Dillon (Carl Scudder); Don Cheadle (Bernie).
Directed by: Thor Freudenthal; written by Jeff Lowell, Bob Schooley and Mark McCorkle, based on the book by Lois Duncan; photographed by Michael Grady; edited by Sheldon Kahn; music by John Debney; production designed by William Sandell; produced by Lauren Shuler Donner, Jonathan Gordon, Ewan Leslie and Jason Clark. A DreamWorks Pictures release.
'Hotel for Dogs' --2 1/2 stars
'Hotel for Dogs' stars Emma Roberts, Jake T. Austin, Lisa Kudrow, Kevin Dillon, Don Cheadle
Rating: 2 1/2 stars (fair-good)
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