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Case Number 16248

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Hotel For Dogs

DreamWorks // 2009 // 100 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // April 28th, 2009

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge Tom Becker once stayed at the Hotel for Dogs. Such a lovely place, such a lovely face.

Editor's Note

Our review of Hotel For Dogs (Blu-Ray), published May 11th, 2009, is also available.

The Charge

No stray gets turned away.

Opening Statement

When the movie is called Hotel for Dogs, it's going to be one of three things:

1. A despairing, existentialist foreign film whose title translation is more idiomatic than literal ("Den Ensam Ställe Var Alla Ensam Folk Gå")

or

2. A kick-ass biker prison movie, wherein "dogs" is spelled "dawgs"

or

3. An awfully cute "family film" about plucky kids and stray pets

Take a peek at the cover of this Dreamworks/Nickelodeon release and tell me which one you think it is.

Facts of the Case

Sixteen-year-old Andi (Emma Roberts, Lymelife) and her little brother, Bruce (Jake T. Austin, Wizards of Waverly Place), have been through five foster families since their parents died three years ago. They are currently with rock 'n' roll horrors Carl and Lois (Kevin Dillon and Lisa Kudrow), who are clearly unfit to care for children—but social worker Bernie (Don Cheadle, Devil in a Blue Dress) is having trouble finding a family that's willing to take a pair of older children.

Andi and Bruce are good kids overall, but they are also trouble. Most of their trouble revolves around Friday, the stray dog they've been secretly toting from one foster home to another. Friday is a link to their parents, but their foster families haven't liked animals. Thanks to an elevator-type device rigged up by Bruce—who's a wiz and creating clever and useful gadgets—Friday can get into the apartment every night to be with the kids.

One night, while running from the police—there's a lot of running from authorities here—Friday finds his way into the shuttered Hotel Francis Duke. Andi and Bruce follow and discover two other dogs living there. Andi turns to her new friends, Dave (Johnny Simmons, The Spirit) and Heather (Kyla Pratt, Dr. Dolittle: Tail to the Chief), who work in a pet store, for help getting food, but she ends up getting three more dogs to add to the now-growing family.

Soon, the kids realize that there are lots of abandoned dogs, and they set out to round them up and give them a second chance at their Hotel for Dogs. They outsmart the animal control officers (once known as "dogcatchers"), and Bruce creates all manner of gadgetry (including devices to help feed, exercise, and toilet train the quick-learning beasts). Soon, the kids and animals have become an ad hoc family.

Of course, this happy family of two- and four-legged strays can't last, and when the grown-up world intrudes, kids and dogs alike must use their wits and their wiles to escape terrible fates.

The Evidence

Hotel for Dogs is the kind of film Disney might have put out during the late '60s or early '70s, when it was producing Saturday matinee fodder (now classics) like That Darn Cat! and Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar. It takes the traditional elements—cute kids (orphans, yet!), dense grownups (with a single understanding adult), charming animals, a good cause (animal rights), easy-to-follow life lessons—and gives us a slickly appealing and familiar package.

This is not a bad thing at all. While it breaks no new ground, Hotel for Dogs is a perfectly satisfying family film that moves deftly between silly comedy and oddly sobering drama. It's got that slightly subversive, post-'60's feel, wherein authority figures, for the most part, are the bad guys and following your nonconformist dream is the path to happiness. There are a few poop-and-pee jokes, though far less than you'd expect, and virtually no leering, smarmy "grown-up" humor. This is not a frenetic, effects-heavy kid flick; it's an old-school situation comedy-drama with the easy-to-digest theme that home is what you make it.

The comedy, naturally, comes from the interplay with the dogs. There are lots and lots of dogs here, all shapes and sizes and breeds, and despite being mutts of desperate circumstance, not one is a biter or even a bit temperamental. The kids will get a kick out of Bruce's inventions, which include the aforementioned toilet-training device as well as a car simulator and automatic feeder, as well as the "main dogs," including Friday and the tiny Georgia.

Then there are the dramatic parts. Some of these—like Andi's budding romance—are just there as placeholders, and the potentially unsettling foster family business will probably not make much of an impression, since Kudrow and Dillon are merely comic villains. When the film deals with the dangers faced by homeless and abandoned animals, however, it's surprisingly straightforward. While it's unlikely that smart, well-behaved kids like Andi and Bruce would be bounced around foster homes, it's a fact that people regularly abuse and abandon dogs. It's a fact that many dog pounds are dank and terrible "last stops" for all kinds of animals, even the cute and cuddly. It's a fact that while people who work for animal control are not the uniformly sadistic goons as portrayed here, their job is to round up stray animals, many of which end up being euthanized. While the clever movie kids constantly get over the animal control guys, and there's a wacky rescue and happy ending, Hotel for Dogs does an effective job delivering its message about doing right by animals. While the grimmer aspects of the film might get past younger kids, children older than 7 might find some of this a little upsetting, though it's a great springboard for discussions on pets, animal care, and responsibility.

Emma Roberts—daughter of Eric, niece of Julia—is poised to be The Next Big Thing, and it's easy to see why. She has her aunt's beauty and presence and a not-unappealing hint of her father's edge. As written, Andi is a fairly standard young teen, kiddie movie heroine, but Roberts brings such a natural quality that she makes it her own. Jake T. Austin plays "regular kid" well; he doesn't go for annoying, scene-stealing cuteness. The adults are wasted here. Cheadle, Kudrow, and Dillon do little more than lend their names, though Cheadle does get a rousing summation speech at the end.

Dreamworks does a very nice job with this disc. The picture and sound are fine, as one would expect from a new release. What I didn't expect was the wealth of extras lavished on this kids' movie—most of which, happily, are geared in some way or another to the target audience.

We start with a chatty commentary with Director Thor Freudenthal, Producer Ewan Leslie, and Roberts and Austin. I'm not a big "commentary" guy; unless they're incredibly witty and irreverent or supplementing a classic and filled with tons of information and trivia, I don't really see the point to them. This one is no exception. It's a breezy listen but far from essential, and I can't really see kids paying attention to it.

Far better are the featurettes. "A Home for Everyone: The Making of Hotel for Dogs" (19:05) is exactly what he purports to be, a making of that focuses heavily on the canine cast members. "That's the Coolest Thing I've Ever Seen" (5:59) is a look at the cool gadgets. "K-9 Casting" (6:27) is pretty self-explanatory, and "Bark on Cue" (4:43) talks about the unique sound-design problems created when trying to synch up a room full of raucous mongrels. All of these are nicely paced, entertaining, informative, and should be of interest to kids who are into this film.

Rounding out the set are deleted scenes, trailers, a photo gallery, and a PSA for the Pedigree Foundation, which provides funding for shelters and rescue organizations.

Closing Statement

Kids raised on films of endless action might find this a bit slow-going at first, but the dogs are pretty irresistible and should win over even the more "jaded" viewers. Hotel for Dogs is a lot of fun, and its message about caring for animals can't be repeated enough. Adults who grew up on live-action Disney fare might find themselves getting a little nostalgic watching this one. With a good-looking, supplement-laden disc, this one's an easy recommend.

The Verdict

Not guilty. Don't forget to spay or neuter your pet.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 92
Audio: 92
Extras: 95
Acting: 88
Story: 88
Judgment: 90

Perp Profile

Studio: DreamWorks
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Subtitles:
• English
• English (CC)
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
Genres:
• Comedy
• Drama
• Family

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary
• Deleted Scenes
• Featurettes
• PSA
• Trailer

Accomplices

• IMDb
• Official Site
• The Pedigree Foundation








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