Cute canines run amok in "Hotel for Dogs"

Wed Jan 14, 2009 3:01am EST
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By Kirk Honeycutt

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The dogs in "Hotel for Dogs" perform breathtaking stunts, touching love scenes, heartbreaking soliloquies with their eyes and clever, clever tricks. The human actors get upstaged at every turn.

In fact, there's hardly any point to watching this movie unless you're tired of seeing "Marley & Me" for the umpteenth time but need a canine fix.

DreamWorks' Friday release -- the closest thing to a Disney family film that isn't a Disney family film -- should pull in sizable crowds for a few weeks before becoming a dog-eared DVD.

The film, based on Lois Duncan's children's book, is a gentle urban fantasy about a couple of older orphans, suffering through a succession of foster parents, who rescue and shelter a kennel's worth of dogs in a derelict hotel. Sixteen-year-old Andi (Emma Roberts) may be the central force behind all the heroic, smart-kid decisions, but her adolescent brother Bruce (Jake T. Austin) is a mechanical genius who can take found objects and rig enough exercise, self-feeding and fetching machines to keep the dogs occupied for days in this hidden playland right off a busy downtown street.

As kiddie lit and children's movies are wont to do, the adult world is hugely exaggerated. The orphans' current foster parents, amusingly played by Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon, are pathetically untalented rock musicians. The unnamed city's dogcatchers are all dog-haters. And the police force will scramble a virtual SWAT teams to arrest the kids for . . . well, the charge would have to be unlawful dog maintenance.

Debuting director Thor Freudenthal and writers Jeff Lowell and Bob Schooley & Mark McCorkle, pay as little attention as possible to such plot points so as to concentrate on the physical feats performed by many dogs, ranging from the youngster's own secret Jack Russell terrier to a precious, big-eyed Boston terrier and a more-bark-than-bite German shepherd. At times, dogs fill wide-angle shots unlike any film since the live-action version of Disney's "101 Dalmatians."

A few adult viewers may find these onscreen activities a bit shameless. Characters go a bit flat? Cut to a canine stunt. Story becomes illogical? Let's get back to those dogs. It's a pretty lazy film in the creativity department save for the dogs.

Don Cheadle somehow got drafted to play the kids' compassionate welfare agent. That's a waste. Since a few other youngsters become involved in the illicit dog rescue project, other young actors -- notably Johnny Simmons, Kyla Pratt and Troy Gentile -- do manage to hold their own against the dogs.

But the real heroes here, of course, are the animal trainers, stunt coordinators and William Sandell for a production design that turns the abandoned hotel -- which conveniently still has all its old furniture, costumes, cleaning equipment and memorabilia lying around -- into first-rate doggie digs.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

<p>Emma Roberts attends the world premiere of "Nancy Drew" held at the Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood June 9, 2007. REUTERS/Phil McCarten</p>