Monday, January 19, 2009

A New Breed of Cuteness

When their new guardians forbid 16-year old Andi (Emma Roberts) and her younger brother, Bruce (Jake T. Austin) to have a pet, Andi has to use her quick wit to help find a new home for their dog, Friday. The resourceful kids stumble upon an abandoned hotel and using Bruce’s talents as a mechanical genius, transform it into a magical dog-paradise for Friday – and eventually for all Friday’s friends. When barking dogs make the neighbors suspicious, Andi and Bruce use every invention they have to avoid anyone discovering “who let the dogs in.”

Canine charmers fill the screen in Hotel for Dogs, but the heartwarming relationship between a brother and sister gives this movie fantasy its greatest appeal. Emma Roberts and Jake T. Austin steal the show as siblings placed with foster parents more interested in themselves than in the welfare of their charges. These two young actors deliver endearing performances and make us care deeply about the characters they play. Andi (Roberts) and Bruce (Austin) try their best to hide their dog Friday from the Scudders, the latest foster couple they’ve been assigned to live with. It’s not easy, for Friday even sneaks bacon right off the counter behind Mrs. Scudder’s (Lisa Kudrow) back. Thankfully, the mutt is quick -- but Andi and Bruce fear it won’t be long before Friday will be discovered. They have to find a good home for their beloved pet. Friday himself, however, discovers an old hotel where a couple of other dogs have been hanging out. The place turns into a godsend for canines, especially after the inventive Bruce designs areas and contraptions any dog would love. Unfortunately, even with help from three other youngsters (Johnny Simmons, Kyla Pratt and Troy Gentile), Andi and Bruce may not be able to save the 30 animals who come to reside in their doggie hotel. But, oh how we want them to succeed! Roberts and Austin excel at showing their characters’ strong feelings and support for each other here. Sixteen-year-old Andi looks out for 11-year-old Bruce and vice-versa. And they don’t want to be separated. It’s refreshing not to be bombarded with the hostility between brother and sister we’ve been exposed to in many other movies and television shows. Andi and Bruce emege as excellent role models for kids: they help each other out while rescuing dogs and creating a loving family they so desperately want.  Dogs of many breeds, shapes and sizes appear in this entertaining comedy -- and even the scruffiest ones look adorable. Not surprisingly, they perform impeccably. Called upon for such stunts as sitting quietly at a dinner table, fetching objects tossed by a strange invention, running frantically through the streets, howling and barking on cue, and so forth, these canny canines bring excitement and humor to their scenes.  Among the human supporting cast, Don Cheadle and Kevin Dillon stand out as a caring Social Services worker and an uncaring foster father, respectively. Cheadle exudes warmth in every sequence with the lead youngsters, whereas Dillon comes across as a first-class jerk -- exactly what his funny role requires. It's pretty far-fetched, but director Thor Freudenthal gives it all a fairy-tale quality, complete with plenty of whimsical inventions created by Bruce. Friday responds to a loudspeaker on their apartment balcony projecting the sound of a can opener; at the hotel, the dogs enjoy conveyor-belt meals and a very large, convenient fire hydrant with an elaborate drainage system. (Just when you think this movie's going to totally ignore the dogs' elimination practices, it gives you much more than you ever wanted to know.) Mostly aimed at grade-school-age kids, the film delicately handles the issue of Andi and Bruce's grief over their lost parents: We see it, without having to be told. As the siblings plot to save their four-legged friends — and discover that the perfect human parents were standing close by, after all — kids should warm to their adventures. Hotel for Dogs is ultimately a sweet reminder of the importance of family and community, human and canine alike. A happy 4 on my "Go See" scale.

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