Thor Freudenthal | 92 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U / PG
Half a decade ago I would surely have hated this film. I had no love for animals in general, certainly not pets. But in the past few years I’ve become a certified canine convert, and watching it now I loved it.
The story sees orphaned teen siblings Emma Roberts and Jake T. Austin accidentally set up a secret sanctuary for strays in a deserted hotel, with help from a couple of similarly aged pet store workers and a neighbourhood kid who wanders in halfway through. Layer in a couple of half-hearted subplots about the siblings’ quest for a new home, a romantic angle or two, and some evil dog wardens, and you have a whole movie.
Well, sort of. This is definitely one for kids or dog lovers. There’s plenty of varied action for the latter, and the story is too simplistic and implausible to be taken more seriously than as a kids’ film. Most of the subplots are mildly annoying — stock material on teen ‘love’, fitting in to a new school, comedy bad foster parents, etc — but at least they’re not given much screen time. It’s this kind of thing that led reviews like Empire’s to criticise the film for a lack of character development, but to be honest I could’ve done without some of the meagre scenes we did get, never mind more of them. Supposedly character building stuff like the teeny party to get to know future classmates — bleurgh. Luckily, such things are brief. And someone wanted more of Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon’s failed-rocker foster parent characters? I’d rather have had less, thanks.
So no, character and story aren’t the film’s strong points. There’s enough of a plot to keep it ticking over, to give it drama when appropriate and give it all a shape. Characters are perfunctory at best, and it’s impossible to buy squeaky clean Emma Roberts as a juvenile delinquent. But really all that’s there just to facilitate more doggy action (er, as it were). The four-legged cast members are the real stars, and several of them definitely have more personality than their human co-stars. My favourite was definitely the orphans’ pet, Friday, a scruffy white terrier with an exceptional ability to sniff out food (featured in every picture, because… aww, just look at him!), but then he reminded me so much of my own dog that I may well be biased. There’s all sorts of mutts here for pretty much every kind of dog lover.
There’s also a good deal of inventiveness on display. Much like the boy from Lemony Snicket, Austin’s character has a flair for invention, and the dog-helping contraptions he magics up throughout the film are delightfully inventive. There’s also a lot of fun filmmaking with the dogs, like the opening sequence that depicts Friday’s ability to sniff out and acquire food with a selection of perfect visuals. This is partly why the animals have so much more personality than the two-legged stars.
Judged as simply a movie, on its story and its characters and all that regular palaver, I can see why Hotel for Dogs attracts so many poor scores (it has an exceptionally low 4.9 on IMDb). But as a kids’ film I think it works well enough, and as a delivery system for cute dogs I loved it. I don’t think I’ve ever “aww”ed so much in a single film. Yep, I’ve gone all soft. But if you’re neither a child nor a dog lover, don’t bother.