As I recently mentioned in my review of the BD of Marley and Me, I am an unabashed "dog person." Unfortunately that predilection doesn't inoculate me from calling a spayed a spayed (sorry, couldn't resist), and the fact is Hotel for Dogs, despite a cuteness quotient that will put some diabetics into permanent sugar shock, is such a paint by numbers affair, with such a curiously neutered emotional resonance, that it's hard to let the film's fitful charms permanently win you over. It's kind of like housetraining a stubborn pup--for every two steps forward, there's at least a step backward, and the resultant mess is not something particularly likable.
Based on a children's book by Lois Duncan, Hotel for Dogs is pretty much summed up by its title. We get two adorable orphans (Emma Roberts and Jake Austin), who, in attempting to hide their equally adorable dog Friday from their latest set of foster parents (Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon), happen upon an abandoned building that is housing several strays. That's the "high concept," folks, and if you're younger than eight or so and willing to go with the flow, you'll get a laugh or two out of the proceedings, as well as an endless supply of "aw, how cute"'s as the various canines go through their trick-laden paces.
Since the Writers' Guild of America was involved in doling out screenplay credits, one can only surmise that this was a cobbled-together affair based on several participants' contributions. Alas, they needed a few more. There is nothing here, despite the promising concept, that you haven't seen a million times before. Two kids in semi-peril with their feisty and lovable pet--check. Concerned social worker (Don Cheadle) who ends up solving all the kids' problems, despite those obstacles including fraud, theft and breaking and entering--check. Nervous nelly foster parents who really aren't so bad after all, just slightly misguided--check. Pets that can do everything from run on treadmills to relieve themselves in custom designed toilets--check (don't believe me?--watch any given episode of America's Funniest Home Videos for the toilet gag and something as recent as Bedtime Stories for the treadmill gag).
What works here is the amiability of Roberts and Austin as siblings Andi and Bruce. Director Thor Freudenthal obviously knows the cuteness factor is best exploited in the doggie cast members, and we therefore get a nicely natural pair of performances that don't push the sugary aspect with the kids (despite Roberts actual age being a good deal older than what she's playing). There's an ease and confidence in both of these performances that helps bring down the sweetness quotient to an almost tolerable level. Several of the contraptions that Bruce supposedly builds to keep the dogs entertained in their new home are also fun, in a Rube Goldberg sort of way, and give the film some inventive visuals at times.
Unfortunately, Hotel for Dogs seems ultimately a sort of very special episode of Letterman's Stupid Pet Tricks, albeit with some very winning animals. Without resorting to CGI (at least it seems like it), the trainers for Hotel have come up with an amazing array of facial reactions and stunts that the dogs provide. Younger kids especially are probably going to laugh themselves silly at the canines' escapades, while the adults continue sighing and looking at their watches.
I had to incidentally wonder what third ring of Hell the former stars of Friends have found themselves consigned to. Jennifer Aniston, who professionally at least seems to be doing the best of the bunch, recently found herself in her own dog-fest, Marley and Me, not exactly Oscar caliber material, as I mentioned in my review. Courtney Cox on the other hand just co-starred with dog-faced Adam Sandler in Bedtime Stories, in a basically thankless role that amounted to just a few minutes of screentime. Lisa Kudrow, on the other hand, probably the most atypical of the Friends cast, has found her career road tougher to hoe, and that's certainly true in this film, where she's called upon to be a sort of dingbat semi-harridan prone to throwing frozen food at her charges. Was she really that desperate for a part? I'd hate to think so.
Paramount and Dreamworks may know that they have a, ahem, dog on their hands with the release, and they're attempting to "tart it up" with some ostensibly special features available through a linked website. What this amounts to is being able to cut and paste a picture of your dog into the cover insert, and also do a similar cut and paste job on a special downloadable trailer. Again, this seems geared pretty exclusively to the younger set, who might get a kick out of seeing their personal pooch "guest starring" in a film. Otherwise, it smacks a little of a desperate gambit to attract an audience, never a good sign.
Hotel for Dogs is presented in an enhanced 1.78:1 transfer with an AVC encode that's noticeably sharper than the SD-DVD, but which can still come off as unexceptional, mostly due to the uninspiring visuals that comprise most of the film. The brightly lit studio "city" scenes are seemingly slightly overexposed, I suppose intentionally so, to give a bright, sunny ambience. That's countered against a nicely inky dark feel to the early hotel scenes, which have excellent contrast and black levels. Colors are excellent and well saturated, and detail is sharp and very well defined. All in all, a very good visual presentation, but nothing to totally knock your socks off.
Similarly the TrueHD 5.1 mix is very good, if unexceptional. Directionality is well handled, especially with various doggie noises, and all dialogue is crisp and clear. Surround channels are fairly sparsely utilized, but do kick in in some dog "action scenes," as well as some of the music underscore and "live" playing of Kudrow and Dillon. French and Spanish DD tracks are also available, as are subtitles in all soundtrack languages.
Quite a few extras supplement the main feature. There's a pretty standard commentary featuring Roberts and Austin among others, as well as featurettes detailing the many Rube Goldberg contraptions in the film, how the dogs were cast, how they were trained, a general making of piece, photo galleries, previews and some deleted scenes. The best piece, in my opinion, is a brief plug for adopting abandoned animals.
Younger kids are going to love Hotel for Dogs, as they will willingly overlook the plot and character deficencies and concentrate on the ultra-cute pooches. Adults are probably going to be less forgiving and may find the film a bit of a chore to sit through. Rent it.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet