3 Stars
Year Released: 2009
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 100 minutes
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“I bet when you find him, you’re gonna say thank god it’s Friday.” – Dave (Johnny Simmons) to Andi (Emma Roberts) about Friday, her brother’s missing dog.

Hearing that line during “Hotel for Dogs,” I could have gotten audibly angry, even in a crowded theater full of kids, over what sounded abjectly stupid, or just gone with it. I chose the latter because considering the scene between Dave, a teenage pet store employee, and foster home veteran Andi, and considering the audience for “Hotel for Dogs,” dialogue from Charlie Kaufman can’t be expected. Yet, it’s charming watching lots of dogs make their home in an abandoned hotel, and feeling the desire from this film to be liked just as any dog would, first with Friday.

He watches the pedestrians around him in the thick of a nondescript city, based on what his nose senses. He sees a few hot dogs being eaten, decides he wants one, and stealthily slips out of his leash-attached collar, soon waiting next to a guy who’s not about to give up his hot dog. Enter the expected opportunity, where the guy stands up, trying to avoid Friday, and is splashed by a passing vehicle. Friday grabs the hot dog and is back in his collar by the time Andi and her inventive brother Bruce (Jake T. Austin) come around for him.

“Hotel for Dogs” is naturally attractive because of the sheer number of dogs in the film, suitable for any dog lover such as myself, especially as the dogs in that abandoned hotel (to which Friday leads Andi and Bruce) give way to constantly considering which of their actions matches the two dogs I own. Fortunately for screenwriters Jeff Lowell, Bob Schooley and Mark McCorkle, these many dogs, some eager, others reserved, and one with three legs, get enough screen time to overshadow the weaknesses in the film, from a few of the characters fitting so easily into the plot that they don’t trigger much interest, to a speech that wouldn’t be touching in other circumstances.

The characters in question are perky Heather (Kyla Pratt) and this-close-to-missing-out-on-High-School-Musical Dave, who work at a pet store, which includes a van with a dog nose on the front, ears, and a slowly wagging tail in the back. Andi and Bruce go in to post flyers of Friday in hope that the missing dog will be found. It appears from the start, based on Heather’s babbling, that she’s attracted to Dave, but once Andi meets Dave, that’s it, and what could be expected, considering Emma Roberts’ family line? Director Thor Freudenthal (yes, real name) knows the value of her presence and lets her remain central to the goings-on in her scenes (he, however, does not know how to rein in composer John Debney’s blaring, bothersome, overly manipulative score). Hopefully Roberts and Jake T. Austin—whose Bruce has a mechanical mind enough to build wonderful devices and machines to help feed and entertain and maintain the dogs in that hotel—appear in stronger films. They’ve got the skills for it, coming from separate TV shows on Nickelodeon (Roberts in “Unfabulous”) and the Disney Channel (Austin in “Wizards of Waverly Place”). It sounds impossible that anyone talented could emerge from recent fare on both channels, but there they are. Now Hollywood just has to build more on that talent.

The crux of the middling plot is that Andi and Bruce have drifted from foster home to foster home after the death of their parents, and now reside with Lois and Carl Scudder (Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon), “rock musicians” who prefer to practice more than caring for their foster kids, which doesn’t help their glaring, and sometimes funny lack of talent. Kudrow tries to channel Carol Burnett’s Ms. Hannigan in “Annie,” but only gets about a quarter of the way there (that’s a good thing, since this is not the kind of film for that sort of unpleasantness, however comedic), while Dillon’s performance thankfully shows that Johnny Drama from “Entourage” is gradually fading from his non-Entourage performances, whereas in “Poseidon,” it was more prominent.

There are the expected dramatic moments, with Andi unhappy at not having a real home, and her ashamedness toward Dave about where she lives, enough to cover it up, becomes tiresome, especially when the dogs have taken up so much time that one wonders why the screenwriters even broach that again.

What’s most surprising in “Hotel for Dogs,” is Don Cheadle co-starring as Bernie, the social worker who has become weary over Andi and Bruce’s antics and try to make them understand that they can’t keep going on like this, that the next time they end up without foster parents will likely be the last time they’re kept together at Andi’s insistence. Being in this kind of film isn’t foreign for Cheadle, considering how he worked to get his career going in the ‘90s, at one point co-starring as hotel manager Roland in a spinoff of “The Golden Girls” called “Golden Palace.” It’s possible Cheadle took on this role to harken back to what looked like an easier time in acting. Surely a break from films like “Hotel Rwanda” and “Traitor,” but back then, his Roland had the same caring spirit, occasional exasperation from dealing with Blanche, Sophia and Rose, and there was even an orphan on the show who lasted for a number of episodes, whom Roland had considered adopting, before the network seemed to decide that the boy didn’t contribute anything to the desperate grab for “Golden Girls”-like ratings, which was as fruitful as “AfterMASH.”

Cheadle’s speech at the end, which attempts to provide that all-important “bridge of understanding” to make all the previous troubles go away, is as harmless as the antics of the dogs, and even touching, though don’t expect to walk out of the theater loving the entire world. Maybe just your love for dogs will grow even more.

“Hotel for Dogs” is just like that, not building much in expectations, but the moments it does have amidst the dogs, and between Andi and Bruce, are nice enough that the film isn’t a total washout. It’s just there, for whoever’s willing, and that’s as it should be.

Posted on January 22, 2009 in Reviews by

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