Friday, January 16, 2009

Review: "Hotel for Dogs"

At no point during “Hotel for Dogs” did they resort to playing “Who Let the Dogs Out,” so right off the bat it exceeded my expectations.

This movie is from the Nickelodeon Channel people, and is essentially a big-budget version of one of their broadcasts decked out with stars like Don Cheadle, Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon. It’s not terribly ambitious – scads of cute canines and life-lesson moments for kids are the order of the day – but it’s passable family entertainment, and manages not to be too annoying for older jaded people, like 12-year-olds.

Emma Roberts (daughter of Eric, niece of Julia) and Jake T. Austin play Andi and Bruce, orphaned siblings who are stuck with awful foster parents (Kudrow and Dillon) who lock the pantry to keep them from eating the good food, and spend all their time rehearsing the world’ worst rock duo act. The siblings’ only comfort is Friday, their scrappy dog who they keep hidden on the sly.

Bruce is a mechanical whiz who whips up Rube Goldberg gadgets to help with dog care, like a mechanized elevator so he can slip in their bedroom window. Andi, 16 and self-conscious, wants to keep the siblings from being split up, and is helped by an obliging social worker (Cheadle) who looks out for them when they get into scrapes with the law.

One day Friday wanders into the abandoned Hotel Francis Duke, a golden age relic left to rot. Of course, all the furniture and clothing and other stuff is still lying around, and soon they’ve whipped up a cool lair for their pooch – and two others already living there.

With the help of the local pet shop boy (Johnny Simmons), they’re soon rounding up every stray dog in the neighborhood. The pooches are ensconced in high doggie comfort, from automatic feeders to a simulator that makes the dogs think they’re riding in a car with their head out the window. The fire hydrant that washes itself after every bit of doggie business is pure genius; if they ever market this device for the home, I’m buying.

The dog cast is an enjoyable lot with distinctive personalities. There’s one who chews stuff, a big bloke who howls when he’s scared, and an ugly little runt who’s a hit with the bitches (hey editors, back off, it’s cool, you can print it in this context). Although for strays, they all seem to be pricey purebreds like Jack Russell Terriers and Doberman Pinschers.

The heavies in the movie are the dog catchers, who are jack-booted jerkwaters that enjoy locking up dogs. Most of them are played by vaguely recognizable actors; for those who enjoy indulging in such games, I spotted the nunchucks guy from “Dreamscape,” Samir, destroyer of printers, from “Office Space” and the next-door neighbor from “Revolutionary Road.”

“Hotel for Dogs” isn’t a great family flick, but at least parents won’t feel like checking out before kiddies have wallowed in every single poop joke.

Two stars out of four

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