While Hotel for Dogs shares the title of Lois Duncan's charming novel about canines and their youthful care-givers, in most other ways it departs from its unassuming source material.
A cavalcade of smart-pet tricks - poodles pooping in toilets, dachshunds driving bumper cars, Jack Russells operating pulleys - Thor Freudenthal's circusy movie adaptation makes you wonder, what Animal Planet is this from?
To be sure, the parade of purebreds and pound puppies assembled for the movie elicits the requisite awe and awws. Inarguably worthy is its message that there are many unwanted dogs - and children - waiting to be adopted into a family that wants them.
This point actually might have human impact if the movie's focus were the story of two melancholy foster children (Emma Roberts and Jake T. Austin) and Friday, the shaggy dog, like them a stray, and how they hide from their disagreeable foster parents. When Friday runs into an abandoned hotel and finds other dogs hiding there, his owners get the idea of saving strays from the pound where they will be euthanized. They give the dogs the love and care that they so crave.
Perhaps afraid that the implications of unwanted children and dogs are too heavy for the audience, the filmmakers smooth the rough edges, paint them in party colors, and bring on the clowns. Austin, the younger foster sibling, is an imaginative child whose gadgets turn the condemned hotel into a terrier theme park with rides, diversions and sumptuous accommodations.
At its best, the movie is a catalog of doggy stunts. A Chinese crested smooching a poodle! German shepherds exercising on treadmills! 101 pooches seated at a banqueting table for dinner! While evidently you can teach an old dog new tricks, these canines have not yet mastered utensils.
In between these three-ring attractions, Don Cheadle shows up as a kindly child protection officer hoping to place the foster kids with an adoptive family. By movie's end, I had whiplash from the movie's lurches between frivolity and seriousness. And my 12-year-old, who loved loved loved Duncan's novel in fourth grade, asked, "Did they just buy the title and throw away the book?"
Hotel for Dogs ** (out of four stars)
Directed by Thor Freudenthal. With Emma Roberts, Jake T. Austin, Don Cheadle, Kevin Dillon and Lisa Kudrow. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 38 mins.
Parent's guide: PG
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/