This American hero will have trouble finding an audience.
Today American politics seem more divided than ever. Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero, directed by Richard Lanni and written by Lanni and Mike Stokey, might, therefore, come as a breath of relief to some. The movie presents something that we can all probably agree on: dogs are great. Unfortunately, this universal truth doesn’t always translate into a good movie.
Sgt. Stubby is based on the true story of the real-life dog of the same name. The movie begins in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1917, where Stubby, a stray dog, happens upon a military parade. When a kind soldier throws him a cookie, Stubby follows him to his training base. The soldier, Robert, is at first reluctant to take in this new friend, but they soon form a powerful bond. Similarly, everyone at the base immediately takes a liking to the adorable and surprisingly capable dog. He’s quickly accepted among the rank and file.
When the military eventually deploys Robert and his troop to the Western Front, Stubby secretly sneaks onto their boat so that he can follow Robert. In combat, Stubby helps to save countless lives and becomes a war hero. He goes onto become one of the most decorated dogs in U.S military history. The movie’s cast features Logan Lerman as Robert, Gérard Depardieu as Gaston, and Helena Bonham Carter as the narrator.
There’s no denying that Stubby is a very cute and impressive dog, but I still think this movie will struggle to find an audience. For one thing, the script is incredibly heavy-handed. Not only are there numerous lines of unnecessary clunky dialogue which simply repeat things that one can easily visually infer, the movie also includes a pretty unnecessary narration. All moments of narration are laid over maps and still images. These scenes make you feel more like your watching a history channel special than a narrative film. Things like this bog the movie down too much for it to really be enjoyable to adults.
The movie doesn’t play excellently as a kid’s movie either. Overly explicatory dialogue and narration could perhaps be justified as necessary for a kid’s film, but most Disney and Pixar movies prove that you don’t need to dumb things down in this way for young audiences to enjoy them.
While kids would surely be fans of the lovable and brave Stubby, the movie’s subject matter doesn’t exactly scream kid’s movie. Yes, the movie is technically about a dog, but it’s still a war movie. This isn’t to say that kids shouldn’t learn about history or that they aren’t capable of grasping these concepts, quite the contrary. But this war movie centered on a dog doesn’t seem like the most effective vehicle for this. Especially since Sgt. Stubby seems to view World War 1 through rose-colored glasses.
I see two problems in the film’s representation of World War 1. First, for a lot of the movie, Sgt. Stubby presents an incredibly idealized and scrubbed version of war. For example, there’s a scene in which Gaston offers Robert wine, to which Robert, mouth agape, says he’s never had a drink before. He declines the offer because drinking is against military’s rules. Obviously, movies geared towards kids must present this kind of narrative when it comes to things like drinking. But by offering such a happy and clean-cut version of soldiers –who, by the way, are literally on the front lines of battle– the movie seems to undermine the way that war truly affects people.
Another scene finds Robert sprinting to the medics with Stubby in his arms. He’s absolutely distraught over the fact that his dog is injured. Meanwhile, in the background, other soldiers are carrying one of Robert’s dear human friends off to the medics as well. Robert sees this, yet his main concern rests with Stubby. No real person would care more about a dog than a fellow soldier. By making this the case, the movie once again undermines the fact that this was a real and terrifying scenario in which countless innocent people lost their lives, and those that didn’t were forever changed.
The movie does balance these scenes with some more serious ones that include gas attacks, gunfire, and even knife combat. The problem with these scenes is that they’re presented, for the most part, as being solved by a dog. I’m sure that the real Sergeant Stubby was very helpful, but this movie suggests that he is basically to thank for much of the army’s success. I’m all for an underdog story, but I can’t help feeling that the combination of these things undermines the gravity of World War 1.
By no means am I saying that anyone should show their children the brutality of war through gritty flicks like Apocalypse Now, but Sgt. Stubby seems to present an inaccurate and potentially irresponsible view of combat. War heroes are of course owed their due in pop culture, but this movie is definitely not the right way to teach the younger demographic about something so serious. Perhaps the balance between Sgt. Stubby and Apocalypse Now is something like Forrest Gump.
As evidenced by the debacle over the treatment of food allergies in the movie Peter Rabbit, the lessons that children might take away from movies are of the utmost importance to parents. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone who knew nothing about history watched Sgt. Stubby and came away from their viewing thinking that Robert’s looked like a pretty cool adventure. Based on this, I don’t see Sgt. Stubby becoming the next big family film.
The other shame of the movie is the waste of a talented cast. Voice-over can still be a showcase for impressive acting. Case in point: Scarlett Johansson‘s phenomenal performance in Her. But Sgt. Stubby‘s uninspired writing leaves Lerman, Bonham Carter and Depardieu without much to work with.
So give Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero a try if you really love dog movies. Though, I must note that Isle of Dogs did hit theatres this week and it actually features way more canines…