Hotel for Dogs offers just the sort of kibble that makes the children in my family sit up and beg to go to the movies: A lovable assortment of pooches get into various kinds of doggy trouble, only to ultimately be saved by an equally lovable collection of up-and-coming teenage actors. What's not to love?
In truth, there's quite a bit not to love in Hotel for Dogs, including numerous plot holes, an erratic moral compass, and an inconsistent tone. Fortunately, the clever premise (taken loosely from Lois Duncan's 1971 children's story of the same name), the likeability of the leads, and the irresistible charm of the dogs keep this film engaging for kids and tolerable for adults.
Hotel for Dogs is the story of two foster kids determined to preserve their bond with each other and their eternally hungry mutt, Friday. Since their parents died four years ago, 16-year-old Andi (Nancy Drew's Emma Roberts) and her little brother Bruce (Jake T. Austin, best known from TV's Wizards of Waverly Place) have had to fight to stay together. Despite the best efforts of a sympathetic child welfare officer (Don Cheadle), the kids have bounced from home to home and now must live with the Scudders, a pair of miserly aging rockers.
Lois Scudder (Lisa Kudrow) is a modern-day Miss Hannigan (meets Spinal Tap); she keeps the food pantry padlocked and offers the children nothing but gruel for their two state-mandated meals per day. She also has a strict policy against pets. But Andi and Bruce know their only other option is to be moved into separate homes, so they endure their current conditions and are careful to keep their dog hidden. Things get complicated when Friday begins running repeatedly afoul of the city's Animal Control officers.
The kids stumble upon an abandoned hotel and, desperate to keep their dog safe, decide to make it Friday's new home. Soon, Bruce is using his remarkable knack for engineering to invent a variety of clever dog amenities, and the kids (with the help of some newly acquired friends) begin to rescue a growing number of the city's strays.
As the hotel is transformed into Doggy Paradise, the canines and humans form their own ragtag family. But Animal Control officials are hot on their trail, leading to an ultimate confrontation that could separate Andi, Bruce, and their beloved pet permanently.
When Hotel for Dogs is functioning as a light-hearted fantasy, it works wonderfully. Bruce's inventions are delightfully creative, and the dogs' enjoyment of them is irresistibly entertaining. Unfortunately, director Thor Freudenthal (in his first feature-length project) is constantly pushing the film into grittier, more realistic territory, making the fantastical elements seem suddenly implausible and silly.
Sometimes Hotel for Dogs seems to want to mine a family-drama pathos evocative of films like Because of Winn-Dixie. In other scenes the movie is dragged down by heavy-handed social commentary that overplays the obvious parallels between orphans and strays. The points the filmmakers are making are good onesfamily is worth fighting for, and it can be created in unlikely placesbut the characters and plot are not well-developed enough to sustain anything too serious for too long. A breezier, more consistent touch would have served this movie well.
The film is also undermined by a confusing approach to morality. The early scenes reveal Andi and Bruce resorting to petty crime (defrauding pawn shop owners) in order to raise the funds necessary to feed Friday. The message seems to be that it is noble to do anything to take care of someone (or something) you lovebut the film does not acknowledge the difficulty the defrauded individual may face feeding his own family if he is routinely stolen from. For most of the rest of the film, authority figures (Animal Control workers, police officers and dimwitted foster parents) are at best buffoons and at worst cold-hearted killers, pushing Hotel for Dogs into sketchy "kids-always-know-best" territory.
Hotel for Dogs is ultimately a tribute to the Power of Cute Pooches; despite all the film's shortcomings, the dogs deliver genuine laughs and prove to be thoroughly engaging protagonists. It's frustrating, though, to see a Can't-Miss premise almost wasted. What could have been a first class hotel is more of a 2-star motel. Thank goodness they allow pets.Discussion starters
- Bruce and Andi repeatedly break the law to feed and protect their animals. Is their behavior justified? Why or why not?
- The kids turn down an offer to move to a new foster home in order to stay and care for the dogs. Do you respect that decision? Why or why not?
- Under what conditions, if any, is it appropriate for a child to lie to an adult?
- Andi and Bruce's desire to help those who couldn't help themselves in their neighborhood (in this case, dogs) is commendable. Is there something you could do (or be a part of) in order to help the homeless humans or pets in your neighborhood?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Hotel for Dogs is rated PG for some crude language and humor (mostly to do with dog excrement) and brief mild thematic elements. Very young children may be upset by the (unrealized) threat of the dogs being exterminated, as well as by an emotional scene when the siblings are separated. Though the film has some worrisome themes about the justification of criminal behavior for a good cause, such themes and mixed messages make great discussion starters for families.
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