Don't let the pandering cover and oddball premise fool you: Richard Lanni's Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero (2018) is an enjoyable and effective movie that you probably didn't know even existed until now. It's a CGI production about a cute li'l doggie that inadvertently ends up fighting alongside "our boys" in WWI and earning a medal or two in the process, thanks to his street smarts and ability to salute commanding officers -- a story that would be ridiculous if it weren't actually true. Yet even ignoring the real-life historical roots, "war-dog-movie-as-family-entertainment" conjures up all sorts of eye-rolling possibilities, including obligatory poop jokes and talking animals (or at the very least, internal monologues). Sgt. Stubby avoids these pitfalls entirely, treating its subject matter and young audience with much-needed respect.
The story, which doesn't deviate very far from various (and mostly agreed-upon) accounts of the pup's life and military career, goes like this: while wandering the streets of New Haven, Connecticut, stray dog Stubby wanders into an Army parade and is noticed by doughboy Robert Conroy (Logan Lerman). Stubby later finds their camp on Yale University grounds, quickly befriending Conroy and his fellow 102nd Infantry soldiers -- and while the mutt is accepted by their commanding officer, he doesn't impress the higher-ups until Conroy teaches him to sit up and salute on command. His positive effect on morale earns the dog a place at camp...but when the boys are called to action in the trenches of France, Stubby's unique abilities end up making him a valuable member of the team. Sniffing out poison gas and hearing incoming bombs faster than his fellow soldiers, Stubby even pulls a few men to safety and catches a German spy.
It's a curiously moving and effective story, paired with beautiful CG animation and a great score by veteran composer Patrick Doyle. What's more is that Sgt. Stubby maintains a thoughtful tone from start to finish, rarely letting the canine outshine his fellow soldiers but playing into his legend with a knowing wink. It treats young audiences with respect by toning down the horrors of war without dismissing them entirely...and perhaps most importantly, not turning this into a propaganda piece. Plus, the dog *gasp* actually acts like a real dog. Sgt. Stubby could've made a million wrong turns but doesn't, and that's a minor miracle for family movies these days. As it stands, only two little nitpicks keep it from reaching even greater heights: Robert himself makes for a fairly generic lead, while the voice-over narration by Robert's sister Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) isn't always necessary. Still, there's a lot more right than wrong here and, combined with the film's poor commercial reception, that makes Sgt. Stubby one of this year's most unlikely surprises.
The film's delayed home video release makes its impact even more surprising: Sgt. Stubby flopped at the box-office all the way back in March despite mostly positive reviews, and it just arrived on disc a week ago. Although we were sent a DVD-only edition for review, a Blu-ray DVD combo pack is also available and that's probably the version to get. Even so, this standard-definition disc still features a solid A/V presentation and several short but enjoyable bonus features.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Sgt. Stubby looks quite decent for DVD standards. The 480p transfer might appear understandably soft to most eyes, but this ends up serving the film's visual style quite nicely: both the character designs and (especially) the backgrounds have a subtle brush-stroke quality that doesn't rely on razor sharp edges. Even at a lower resolution, plenty of nice textures are visible on fur, hair, clothing, and other surfaces, while the varying color palettes are all rendered nicely with minimal bleeding. Black levels also hold up fairly well, although the film's soft-by-design appearance doesn't push too far past "dark grey" territory. Mild amounts of compression artifacts, slight aliasing, and banding could be spotted on occasion, but all are at acceptable levels considering the format and genre. Overall, Sgt. Stubby is a solid-looking film that obviously fares even better on Blu-ray, but still earns passing marks here.
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Likewise, the default Dolby Digital 5.1 audio -- also available in a Spanish dub or English Descriptive Audio track -- serves its purpose well with cleanly-recorded dialogue, appropriate use of surrounds and channel separation, and plenty of room left over for composer Patrick Doyle's excellent score. Although the combat scenes are purposely less intense as those in most war-related films (probably a good thing, under the circumstances), there's still a good amount of dynamic range and heft on occasions. Optional subtitles are included for both languages, but not during the bonus features.
The standard menu interface provides smooth access to chapter selection, audio/subtitle setup, and bonus features, with no annoying forced trailers beforehand. This one-disc release arrives in an eco-friendly keepcase with poster-themed cover artwork, a matching slipcover, and a Digital Copy redemption slip. The "All Ages - Dove Approved" stamp on the front is misleading: despite its overall softness, this is still a PG film and probably best suited for kids eight and up.
Although they're a little light, the extras here are mostly well-done and defy the film's tepid box-office reception. The first and most informative is "The Making of a Hero: Behind the Scenes" (14 minutes), a mid-length featurette that touches upon the usual subjects: history, development, voice casting, animation, and more, which includes words from key cast and crew members. "Animating History: The Art of Sgt. Stubby" (2 minutes) is a modest step down, though -- it's more of a storyboard and concept art slideshow with little to no context, rather than an expanded look at the film's visual design. Luckily, "Real to Reel: The True Story of Sgt. Stubby" (5 minutes), despite its short length, is a great little overview of the heroic real-life pup and selected scenes from the film, while "Memoriae Tuae: Historical Image Gallery" (2 minutes) offers a narrated look at historical photos in the same vein. No trailer or other promotional goodies, unfortunately.
I really didn't expect much out of Sgt. Stubby, largely for its oddball premise of a war drama aimed at kids and starring a cute little doggie. I mean, so much could potentially go wrong here...but surprisingly it doesn't, and the story's authentic roots in WWI history definitely smooth things over even more. Overall, this is an effective and great-looking family movie that'll likely please everyone from kids to great-grandparents. Paramount's DVD presentation adds a decent amount of support, pairing a rock-solid A/V presentation with a few painfully short but mostly enjoyable bonus features. It's firmly Recommended as-is, but the existence of a Blu-ray combo pack makes this edition practically redundant.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work and runs a website or two. In his free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.