Film Review: Hotel for Dogs

Expect canine-loving crowds to book repeat reservations for this lively, if entirely predictable, family comedy.

2008 was a tough year for A-list movie stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman, but Hollywood's four-legged canine friends seem to be picking up the box-office slack. Both the animated adventure Bolt and the surprise December smash Marley & Me racked up sizeable grosses and there's little reason to suspect that the new dog-themed family comedy Hotel for Dogs won't enjoy similar success.

Liberally adapted from a 1971 children's novel by Lois Duncan, Hotel for Dogs is a product of Nickelodeon's film division, but in both tone and spirit it harkens back to the numerous live-action animal comedies that Disney churned out in the '60s and '70s such as Gus, The Shaggy D.A. and, my personal favorite, The Cat from Outer Space. Those movies would never be confused with the company's great artistic achievements like Sleeping Beauty and Fantasia and, similarly, Hotel for Dogs shouldn't be mentioned in the same sentence as such superior family entertainment as Wall-E or Babe. That said, like the old Disney films, it also happens to be an entirely respectable programmer that young viewers and their parents can enjoy on a rainy afternoon.

In bringing Duncan's thin tome to the screen, the film's three credited screenwriters have upped the schmaltz factor considerably. On the page, the story's sibling heroes were briefly rooming with an aunt when they decided to transform a dilapidated house into a pad for stray mutts. In the movie, though, Andi and Bruce (Emma Roberts and Jake T. Austin) have been reconceived as precocious orphans working on their fifth set of foster parents, Lois and Paul Scudder (Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon), a pair of neglectful would-be musicians more interested in rocking out than creating a nurturing environment for kids.

Eager to spend as much time away from these ogres as possible, the children create a home away from their foster home at an abandoned hotel across the street, which they secretly turn into a refuge for homeless dogs. Their first guests include their own pooch Friday, a beloved companion they've gone to extreme lengths to keep hidden from the dog-hating Scudders. The hotel's canine population swells significantly after Andi and Bruce enlist the aid of pet shop employees Dave (Zac Efron clone Johnny Simmons) and Heather (Kyla Pratt), who are all too eager to help keep strays out of the city pound where the dog catchers seem to take perverse pleasure in putting animals to sleep. (The studio might be wise to steady itself for discrimination lawsuits filed by actual dog catchers for its excessively negative depiction of their profession.) Rounding out the human cast is Don Cheadle as the stern but good-hearted child services agent tasked with keeping a watchful eye on the troublemaking siblings.

It's safe to say that one doesn’t go to a movie called Hotel for Dogs expecting very many surprises. Really, all you're hoping for is a diverting romp with a good sense of humor, cute dog tricks and child actors that aren't actively irritating. Hotel for Dogs meets all those standards and does them one better: it invests you emotionally in its predictable, aggressively sentimental narrative. All credit goes to the actors (both homo sapien and canis lupus familiaris) for making the clichés feel almost fresh.

Certain elements, like Andi and Dave's budding romance, never quite click, but the core of the story—namely the kids' desire to be part of a real family again, even a family of dogs—does ring true. And whoever came up with the bright idea of making Bruce a pint-sized engineer a la Kevin McCallister from Home Alone deserves a round of applause. His homemade doggie contraptions, which range from a mechanical stick-thrower for endless games of fetch to a full-service bathroom complete with toilets and a conveyer belt for waste, are surefire crowd-pleasers. (Never mind that they're also physically impossible for him to construct; that kind of logic just spoils the fun.)

Still, the star attractions here remain the dogs, and the filmmakers make sure to fill the frame with adorable canines of all sizes and breeds. Warning to parents: After the film ends, make sure to take your kids directly home, because if they pass by a pet store, you're walking out with a dog.