Like its canine protagonist, “Sgt. Stubby” succeeds by keeping a low profile.
It’s the kind of movie that could have felt ridiculously hokey if not for just the right light touch. Set in World War I, “Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero” tells the true story of a friendly street dog who was adopted by a Connecticut army regiment and wound up going overseas into combat.
Able to locate wounded soldiers, warn of incoming attacks (especially mustard gas) and at one point single-handedly nab a deadly German scout, the pint-sized private was promoted to sergeant and later became something of a national celebrity.
If you consider that this film is also animated, you can see the danger of being too cute, too corny, too sentimental -- not to mention the usual Hollywood pitfall of over-dramatizing a fairly simple story.
Fortunately, director Richard Lanni -- who also wrote the script with Mike Stokey -- takes a very restrained approach.
Here’s what they did right:
First of all, Stubby doesn’t talk, and he isn’t overhumanized. Lovable, yes -- but puppy-dog eyes and sappy facial expressions are nowhere to be found.
Second, the storyline hews pretty close to the facts.
As far as I can tell from online research, nearly everything involving Stubby in combat actually did happen. And this includes the making of a miniature uniform by grateful French civilians -- not to mention his own little doggie-shaped gas mask. Even the capture of the German scout is presented briefly and without much fanfare. (And yes, the real dog did learn how to salute!)
Some viewers might see such faithfulness as a liability, since it leaves the film with a fairly shapeless storyline and no action climax. But it does impart an air of gravity and credence to a tale that sounds a little tough to believe when you try describing it to your friends.
Third, the animation, though handsome, employs a simple palette of browns, grays and greens in keeping with the setting; it likewise avoids the hyper-detailed, “we-painted-one-hair-at-a-time” realism of much recent CGI, looking plain and unadorned in its faces, landscapes and architecture.
Along the same lines, the historical segues make effective use of a bold, blocky art-deco look that appeared on some war posters of that time.
Perhaps best of all, the film rigorously avoids the hip sarcasm, cool cultural allusions and ubiquitous bathroom humor that plague many animated films these days. In some way that’s tough to define, it takes its subject very seriously, yet without feeling unwieldy or self-important.
And while the cinematic Stubby is not overly cute, he’s much easier on the eyes than the real dog, who appears in several photos during the closing credits. That terrier has, shall we say, a face only a mother could love.
Happily, that is not the case with this film.
directed by Richard Lanni
Run time: 85 min.
* * * (out of four)
Rated PG for war action and some thematic elements