Arc Entertainment // 2011 // 93 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // September 27th, 2012
Sometimes you pick the dog. Sometimes the dog picks you.
Australian production Red Dog is a film adaptation of author Louis de Bernieres book of the same name, which itself is loosely based on the real-life exploits of a Kelpie that lived in the small mining town of Dampier, Western Australia, between 1971 and 1979. Red Dog, also known as Bluey and Tally Ho, was so beloved that, following his death, the townspeople of Dampier erected a statue in his honor.
So what did Red Dog do to earn such an honor, you might ask? Well, he did nothing more than bring the people of Dampier closer together, through his utter devotion to them. Red Dog was very much a stray, yet he was never without a home as the entire community took him in. He was made a member of the Dampier Salts Sport and Social Club, as well as the Transport Workers' Union. The Bank of New South Wales even went as far as giving him a bank account, and used him as their mascot.
Following the death of his one true master, local bus driver John Stazzonelli in 1975, Red traveled Western Australia on his own, before returning to Dampier to settle once more until his death from poisoning in 1979.
Thomas (Luke Ford), a truck driver, arrives in the remote town of Dampier, Western Australia to find the townsfolk gathered in the local bar waiting for news on Red Dog, a local stray, who is apparently close to death. Unsure as to how a single dog could possibly mean so much to so many, the residents take it in turns to regale Thomas with stories of Red's adventures, and his friendship with John (Josh Lucas, Hulk) that changed the town and its people forever.
Director Kriv Stenders' Red Dog will win over all but the hardest of hearts, with a simple story told beautifully. Admittedly introducing more than a handful of fictionalized elements to help flesh out the true-life tale of Red Dog, Stenders' film never loses sight of what made Red's story so remarkable. Opening with Red seemingly coming towards the end of his life, the film is made up of flashbacks where the residents recall his numerous adventures, which serve to illustrate how a small dog made such a big impact on an entire town.
Red Dog moves at a leisurely pace, yet within ten minutes of it opening, I was hooked by its warm depiction of a remote town made up of people escaping their pasts, who come to find companionship and purpose thanks to the intervention of an inquisitive dog. I've no doubt whatsoever that the film is at times a little over sentimental in its depiction of Red and the lives he touched, but isn't being sentimental one of the things that film as a medium does so well?
With Daniel Taplitz's screenplay holding few surprises, it is the cast who really bring this story to life. Though Josh Lucas is given star billing, the truth of the matter is that his participation in the film is relatively short. Still, his role as the town's bus driver, John, is pivotal -- not least due to it being based on a real person -- as it drives the narrative of the second act, and arguably acts as the heart of the picture. Lucas does some excellent work here, and his interactions with Red convey a genuine connection between man and beast. The bulk of the film is taken on by the support cast, with Noah Taylor (Almost Famous), John Batchelor, Rohan Nichol, and Arthur Angel delivering nuanced performances that are as funny as they are touching. Leading lady Rachael Taylor (The Darkest Hour) takes a role that could very easily have been seen merely as Josh Lucas's love interest, and instead turns in something far more rounded. The film is also notable for marking one of the final appearances of legendary Australian actor William John Hunter (Muriel's Wedding), who sadly passed away not long before the film's release. The star of the show, however, is, of course, Koko, the canine who plays Red Dog.
Were I to find fault with Red Dog, it would be the feeling that it never really finds an identity all of its own, as it plays out in a format that won't be unfamiliar to anyone who has seen Old Yeller or the more recent Marley and Me. That said: As it is, Red Dog is a film with very few flaws, delivering an uncomplicated yet undeniably emotional story the whole family can enjoy. I would warn parents, however, that there are a couple of incidents that may be heavy going for young children, as real life dictates that not every ending is a happy one. Not that I'd have any problem letting my own boys watch the movie. Just be prepared for a few difficult questions on mortality, and keep a box of tissues ready for the inevitable tears.
Red Dog takes full advantage of its Australian setting, with some beautiful imagery that captures the vast, empty expanses that make up Dampier and its surrounding area. Such imagery is captured perfectly by the DVD's bright, colorful transfer. The picture is sharp, with deep blacks and a high level of detail. The 5.1 soundtrack offers a nicely balanced mix, with clear dialogue throughout.
Arc Entertainment's DVD includes a good selection of extras, which are kicked off by a commentary track featuring Director Kriv Stenders and Producer Nelson Woss. In addition to this there is a "making of" featurette that is complemented by "Koko's Screen Test" and "Training Footage," which help provide an understanding of how the filmmakers were able to get such a remarkable performance from the film's non-human star. Making up the numbers are a selection of deleted scenes and storyboards.
With its themes of overcoming isolation and finding one's purpose, Red Dog goes far beyond being just another cute dog movie. Even the decision to embellish the story, such as with the inclusion of Red Cat, can't detract from what is a charming, heartwarming, and somewhat inspiring film.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Arc Entertainment
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Deleted Scenes