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Dogs, dogs and more dogs…they’ve taken over theaters and I’m not sure how much more I can take. In just the last three months we’ve had Bolt, Marley & Me and, lest we forget, that horrific chihuahua catastrophe. The canine inundation continues with Hotel for Dogs, a movie that might not have been a total waste of time if the people behind it had realized there was more to their story than just dogs doing absurdly cute stunts.
Though it plays second fiddle to endless montages of dogs being fed by, entertained with or relieving themselves into ridiculous makeshift contraptions, there is a plot in the midst of all that fur. Andi (Emma Roberts) and Bruce (Jake T. Austin) are orphaned siblings who have spent the last three years enduring the often rough and unsympathetic child welfare system. Their inability to hold onto any one set of foster parents isn’t helped by the fact that they regularly get in trouble with the law while trying to care for their dog, the family pet they’ve somehow kept secret since their parent’s death. Thanks to the efforts of their strong-hearted case worker Bernie (Don Cheadle) they’ve managed to stay together, but the likelihood of being split up grows with every new foster home.
Having no desire to hang around the apartment with their latest heartless guardians Carl and Lois Scudder (Kevin Dillon and Lisa Kudrow), the kids spend their days wandering the city, ripping off pawn shops and using the money to buy dog chow. One night, while evading the police (oddly enough, for a crime they didn’t commit) they duck into an abandoned hotel. Discovering two stray dogs that have taken up residence, Andi and Bruce decide they’ve found the perfect place to hide their pup as well.
In fact, it’s such a good hideaway they gather together a motley crew of kids to help round up all the stray dogs in the city and kennel them at the hotel. Between Andi’s protective nature and Bruce’s gift with devising gadgets (enter the aforementioned makeshift puppy-care contraptions) they cheerfully keep the operation running, knowing that one slip up could mean their separation and a one-way trip to the pound for all the pups.
Andi and Bruce’s story is a sweet one, and it’s the real heart of the movie, but their struggle to care for each other is all but ignored. Maybe that’s not such a surprise considering the screenplay was written by Jeff Lowell, who also wrote gems like Over Her Dead Body and John Tucker Must Die, and Robert Schooley and Mark McCorkle, two men who had their hands in writing both horrible Aladdin sequels and the painful Lion King 2. Their weak adaptation of the classic Lois Duncan novel is concerned with little more than getting you to giggle at the dogs.
That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with letting your canine performers steal the show from time to time, but at the rate director Thor Freudenthal was going he might as well have cast Mario Lopez and filmed an extra long episode of “Pet Star”. To his credit, though, Freudenthal seems to have set aside the traditional obsession with CG and used real dogs in all the scenes. As if that weren’t hard enough with a cast of more than forty canines, the complexity of the stunts and camera work needed to capture them almost makes me wish there was an awards category to recognize it. Unfortunately all that dog training wonderment is lost on a movie designed to bore anyone over the age of eight.
The human side of the cast gets no such kudos. Roberts and Austin, who were clearly cast for their draw power on the Nickelodeon crowd, deserve to be upstaged by their canine co-stars. As for Cheadle, Kudrow, and Dillon, I have no idea how they got suckered into this, but Freudenthal must have pictures of them doing something illegal.
As with so many dog movies, the film is laced with not-so-subtle hints that dog pounds are cruel, animal control officers are dog-hating Neanderthals, and euthanizing the ever-growing stray dog population isn’t the answer. Of course it negates all of that to go for the giggle by showing two of the strays sporting a very cute but very large litter. Bob Barker will be furious. The final product is one hundred minutes worth of cinematic babysitting that parents will be able to pop into the DVD player to keep the youngsters quiet.