Film Review: Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero

True-life story about a doggy war hero is a gentle delight.
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There are children across the country who will be begging for Boston Terrier stuffed animals, if not the genuine article, after watching Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero. This animated flick about the real-life canine war hero who served with the 102nd Infantry Regiment, 26th Division, during World War I, tells its story gently and winsomely. With one of its writers well versed in the realities of combat, a talented voice cast and painterly, luminous animation, Sgt. Stubby is a movie parents should be happy to play on repeat.

One bright and sunny afternoon, while marching down the street in a parade, Private First Class Robert Conroy (the voice of Logan Lerman) throws some food to a stray dog nosing his way through the crowd. This act of kindness wins the heart of the homeless mutt, who follows Conroy all the way to the site of Conroy’s basic training. Once there, rather than getting himself kicked out, or even getting Conroy into trouble, the stray pooch charms nearly everyone he meets. It helps that he’s a quick study: Conroy trains him so well he’s soon marching with the bipeds, and even saluting on command. Still, war in France, where this, the “Yankee” Division, is being sent, is no place for the soldiers’ new mascot, whom Conroy has named “Stubby.” Before he ships out, Conroy with a heavy heart leaves Stubby to the care of an army cook…for about ten seconds. Stubby will not be separated from his best friend, and hops unnoticed upon the train, then the boat, ferrying Conroy to dangerous shores.

Once in France, Stubby engages in a number of heroics, which did, evidently, really happen: He finds wounded soldiers who are buried beneath rubble by sniffing them out; he saves the company of men by warning them, via much barking and indicating with his snout, to don masks before a gas attack; he even catches a German spy (though this last episode sounds far more exciting than its corresponding scene in the film, where its scary dramatics, strangely though perhaps necessarily for the young audience, are downplayed).

It’s Conroy’s older sister who narrates Stubby’s exploits, speaking in voiceover as she paraphrases the letters her “kid brother” sent her. As the voice of big-sis Margaret, Helena Bonham Carter is just perfect: With her soft take on an American accent, she sounds like a kind mother telling you a bedtime story. In fact, all the voice work is top-notch, from the crisp, old-timey diction of Lerman (whose aptitude for the speech patterns of an earlier era is unsurprising, given his penchant for literary-minded films like the Philip Roth adaptation Indignation and the misbegotten The Vanishing of Sidney Hall) to the warm, thick accent of Gérard Depardieu, who voices a French soldier and one of Conroy’s best human friends, Gaston.

But the real star of the film is the animation. If Bonham Carter sounds as if she’s reading to you, the animators have ensured Sgt. Stubby looks like a storybook. It’s all in the magnificent lighting. From high noon to sunset to dusk to dawn, multiple times of day are featured like characters in their own right. When Conroy and Gaston embark upon a mission through the French forest, the scene’s suspense and action play second fiddle to the gorgeous greens, yellows and blues of the foliage shining in the afternoon sun. It had me wishing the plot could find another excuse for our heroes to engage in more countryside reconnaissance, just so we could spend more time in this lush setting.

The pedigree of Sgt. Stubby, too, is worth noting. The film is co-written by Mike Stokey, an army veteran who consults for movies and TV as the executive officer of Warriors Inc. He’s previously consulted for Tropic Thunder, Alexander, “Band of Brothers,” The Thin Red Line and Born on the Fourth of July, among other projects. With its attention to military detail, from the layout of the French trenches to the dynamic among the men, Stokey’s expertise is evident in this film about the dog Georgetown University would one day take for its mascot. (The real Conroy studied law at the school.) Irish director and co-writer Richard Lanni doesn’t have nearly as many credits to his name, but he’s got ambition to spare: Sgt. Stubby is the first film from his new studio, Fun Academy Motion Pictures, which he hopes will one day rival Pixar, DreamWorks and the like.

The film is rather slow and could have stood to be even briefer than its 85 minutes. It also seems best suited to littler kids, rather than older children nearing their tween years. But if you’ve got an animal lover in your family, someone with an interest in war or who adores storybooks, you’d do worse than to go see Sgt. Stubby.

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