Hotel for Dogs clearly wants to rank alongside films such as Anna to the Infinite Power, The Goonies, E.T., and Radio Flyer, films that balanced lighthearted playfulness with a darker, grittier reality. Like the recent Spiderwick Chronicles, Hotel for Dogs plays all the same Spielberg/Donner riffs (a cast of doe-eyed youngsters wise beyond their years dressed in corduroy and plaid, moments of adult menace cut with "oh, thank goodness" relief) and even apes the look of these early '80s flicks. Yet for all its nostalgic bravado, the film never feels more than surface, more than flash.
Andi (Emma Roberts, who is 23 but looks to be 13) and Bruce (Jake Austin) are two orphans (read: mischievous but oh so sweet) living with bumbling foster parents (Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon in butt-rock mode as barely-making-it musicians) who don't know about the existence of the kids' little dog, Friday. Bruce is something of a technical wunderkind, having devised all manner of Rube Goldbergian devices to keep Friday hidden, but even he has difficulty keeping Friday out of the grasp of a Brazil-styled army of stormtrooper dog catchers. Fearing their foster parents will find Friday, the kids hide him in a dilapidated hotel (where there are priceless fixtures just lying about and the electricity is still running) that quickly becomes a makeshift shelter for the city's well-behaved curs.
Bruce being Bruce, the hotel is outfitted with all manner of mechanical devices to keep the dogs occupied (the best is a car ride simulator), fed (at a long table), and clean (both a dog wash and a toilet service). The wonky machines (they should have ACME stamped on their sides) are fun but hopelessly fraught with problems (as soon as Bruce steps away they start breaking down), and it's never clear why the dogs would actually use them.
Add a love interest (kindly pet store employee Johnny Simmons), an overly concerned social worker (Don Cheadle), and a montage (complete with Tomoyasu Hotei's instrumental "Battle Without Honor or Humanity," as heard in Kill Bill), and Hotel for Dogs rapidly degenerates into every other cheesy tween movie aired on Nickelodeon.
The script is ramshackle and cliché ridden, the performances narrowed down to gawking (Roberts is particularly dull), and the story, when it isn't sappy, misses all the good beats. Clearly, the film should have abandoned its human cast and just let the dogs run crazy in a hotel. I've never been so eager to relive the simple joys of Benji the Hunted. And as I mentioned at the outset, the film looks really good. Director Thor Freudenthal (a first-time helmer) and cinematographer Michael Grady (Wonderland) shoot the film as though it were one of the Coen brothers' early thrillers. The lighting, the crane shots, I've never seen so much wasted atmosphere.
For all its clever cinematography and dramatic play-acting, Hotel for Dogs loses steam and sense whenever the dogs are off the screen. Small children might enjoy the film but it's unlikely they'll want to revisit it. Perhaps one day there will be a fan edit of Hotel for Dogs removing all the people and strained dialog -- a 20-minute highlight reel of the mutts just letting loose -- and that will be something worth seeing.
If they catch the rabbit, they never race again.
Run time: 100 mins
In Theaters: Friday 16th January 2009
Box Office USA: $73.0M
Box Office Worldwide: $73M
Distributed by: Dreamworks Pictures
Production compaines: DreamWorks SKG, Nickelodeon Movies
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 45%
Fresh: 53 Rotten: 64
IMDB: 5.3 / 10
Director: Thor Freudenthal
Screenwriter: Jeff Lowell, Robert Schooley, Mark McCorkle
Starring: Emma Roberts as Andi, Jake T. Austin as Bruce, Don Cheadle as Bernie, Johnny Simmons as Dave, Kyla Pratt as Heather, Robinne Lee as Carol, Troy Gentile as Mark, Lisa Kudrow as Lois Scudder, Kevin Dillon as Carl Scudder, Ajay Naidu as ACO Jake, Eric Edelstein as ACO Max, Yvette Nicole Brown as Ms. Camwell, Maximiliano Hernández as Officer Mike, Andre Ware as Officer Jeff, Jonathan Klein as Evan, Tiya Sircar as Marianne