Essays · Movies

Dog Movies and Movie Dogs: The Two Sides of Canine Cinema

‘Megan Leavey’ looks like just another sappy dog movie, but does it qualify for such dismissal?
By  · Published on June 8th, 2017

‘Megan Leavey’ looks like just another sappy dog movie, but does it qualify for such dismissal?

Once upon a time, Rin Tin Tin was the top-grossing box office star in the world. That’s right, a dog. In the 1920s, he saved Warner Bros. from bankruptcy and was the studios’ highest-paid “actor” by a long shot. And before that iconic German Shepherd, there was Strongheart and Jean the collie. Another collie, Blair, is actually considered the first dog star of screen as early as 1905. Canines have been a big part of cinema since the start, and eventually they were even granted their own prestigious award at Cannes, the Palm Dog.

Yet, “dog movies” have become something looked down upon. How many of us groaned at the existence of Megan Leavey, a biopic about a US Marine and the military employed K9 who saved her life? Especially coming so soon after A Dog’s Purpose and before that another military dog movie, Max. Megan Leavey is receiving better reviews than most, though, and it’s worth pointing out the major difference: focus of the story and the marketing, as well as much of the critical favor, has been on the human protagonist, the real person of the title played by Kate Mara.

But what’s wrong with movies more centered on the animal? There have been so many dog movie classics, from more earnest family films starring incarnations of Lassie and Benji to comedies such as Beethoven and its many sequels to the great Disney tearjerker Old Yeller. Movies partnering cops with dogs, such as Turner & HoochK-9, and Top Dog, have had their fans.  There are also dog lovers who will swear by schmaltzy modern releases like A Dog’s Purpose, Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, and Marley & Me.

The rest of us see that stuff as just too sappy, though, and when combined with the huge influx of less realistic, lowest-common-denominator kid-targeted fare, including the Air Bud franchise and Firehouse DogKarate Dog, Angel DogVampire DogDog Gone, etc., the bar is held down low for the whole category of dog-led titles. That A Dog’s Purpose is made by a director of some esteem yet unites the more respectable dog movies with the silliness of a talking-dog vehicle further conflates the bunch.

If Megan Leavey is more human-character-driven, it can be aligned more with another group of movies that prominently feature dogs but shouldn’t be called dog movies. This is the arena of the “movie dog,” which houses such famous pooches as Toto from The Wizard of Oz (played by Terry the terrier), Asta from The Thin Man (played by Skippy), and Uggie from The Artist, who is a Palm Dog winner. Other Cannes-honored canines, like the poodle from this year’s The Meyerowitz Stories, all count. But while this group can also include dogs from dog movies, it’s more reserved for scene-stealing supporting characters.

A good example of a recent movie dog film that’s clearly not a dog movie is John Wick. One dog is used as a catalyst for the plot, while another becomes a companion for the main character, but it’s never a story about either of the pups. Movie dogs can be MacGuffins, best friends, and unequal sidekicks, but they always serve the story, while the story doesn’t necessarily owe anything to them. A lot of movie dogs die, and it’s usually very sad — occasionally it’s just fine.

Typically you can tell the difference by the title, which will acknowledge the dog if it’s a dog movie. However, there are exceptions. Wendy and Lucy is not a dog movie. It’s a movie about a woman who has a dog, and yes her story revolves around that dog, but the movie doesn’t revolve around the dog, it revolves around her and what the dog means to her. A Boy and His Dog is also very complicated in that it has a central dog character, a talking one at that (telepathically), and he’s there in the title, albeit not by name.

Dog movies are also easily distinguished by their posters, which prominently feature their animal star. There are no dogs on the original posters for John WickThe Wizard of OzThe Thin Man, or The Artist. The movie dogs appear on the posters for Wendy and Lucy and Megan Leavey, but they’re not given as significant placement as they would were they of equal or top billing to the actresses more foregrounded in the marketing (apparently the true star of Megan Leavey is America, if the dominating stars and stripes are an indication).

Another movie that isn’t easy to firmly classify as a dog movie or a movie with a dog is Umberto D. The title refers just to the main character, and there’s no dog on the poster — not the original, anyway; Criterion’s Blu-ray, unlike their DVD, does feature little Flike front and center on the cover art, though. Today, Umberto D. (and there is supposedly a remake in the works) would be sold more as a dog movie, the story of an old man and his canine pal, especially given how emotional it is. But Vittorio De Sica was a master of that kind of film that anyone else, particularly now, would deliver as too maudlin.

Umberto D. is about the man, not his dog. Beethoven and Marley & Me, on the other hand, aren’t really about a family or a couple and their beloved dogs. They’re about the dogs, first and foremost, and the human characters could frankly be cardboard stand-ins. That’s why the human stars aren’t even on the posters for Marley & Me or A Dog’s Purpose, even though they’re big name actors like Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston, and Dennis Quaid.

If you’re still unclear on the difference between the two sides of canine cinema, there’s a fantastic John Wick parody trailer that might help. Produced by RocketJump, the fake spot reverses the roles of John Wick and his first pup, so the latter is the one out for revenge. You could make similar counterparts to many movie dog movies where the primary POV is reconfigured to be that of the dog character. John Wick is not a dog movie, but Dog Wick, which you can see below, is definitely a dog movie.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.