Thor Freudenthal’s Hotel For Dogs, based very loosely on a 1971 children’s book of the same name, succeeds at doing exactly what it wants to do: entertain, for just over an hour, and have kids and dog-loving parents awww’ing at the screen throughout its runtime. It isn’t a vital or relevant kids flick like last year’s Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, but it is a pretty far cry from dreck like, say, Click, another fantastical family adventure whose conceit was similarly preposterous (a remote that controlled time and allowed Adam Sandler’s self-absorbed father figure to flip through his own past and future). This one’s about, well, a hotel for dogs, as the title bluntly suggests, but instead of Sandler’s shrill barking and over the top gestures, we have the adorable and classy Emma Roberts (niece to Julia). It’s probably too early to tell but I’d say this young Roberts has a bright future ahead of her, especially if she keeps choosing agreeable projects like this one, and stays away from the new Disney-tween drone machine (leave High School Musical 4 alone, Emma).
The film’s plot is basically standard issue: Two orphaned siblings, Andi (Roberts) and Bruce (Jake T. Austin), have been placed in many a foster home over the course of three years by their patient and caring Social Worker (always reliable Don Cheadle). At the outset, these kids seem sweet and innocent, but in reality they’re sweet and not completely innocent, as they run a racket involving selling empty and re-packaged cellphone boxes — young Bruce cleverly uses plastic wrap to reseal the boxes, a technique which foreshadows Hotel For Dogs’ preoccupation with inventive ideas and gadgets. The kids also have a dog, an adorable jack russell terrier named Friday, who they constantly struggle to hide from their dopey (mostly harmless) ’80s-rocker foster parents (played by Kevin Dillon and a disappointingly lifeless Lisa Kudrow). Conflict arises when the cartoonishly villainous dog catchers target poor Friday, and the kids decide they must find a safer place for their four-legged friend. And, thanks to a convenient series of events, they find just that in the “hotel for dogs,” an old dilapidated building which is home to a couple of strays who welcome Friday, and the kids, after the former offers a wooden ladle as payment for residence. This scene– as well as another wherein Friday scurries about the kitchen, unfolding ironing boards to use as bridges and leaping from fridge to counter top– emphasizes one of the film’s more intriguing thematic elements: cause and effect, where one lever is pulled to operate a series of tasks, turning gears and propelling conveyer belts.
The hotel for dogs becomes a facility full of such devices, as Jake employs his admittedly unrealistically advanced inventing skills to create complex machinery tasked with feeding the dogs, entertaining them, and, uh, disposing of their feces. It’s in these scenes where a Dr. Suess-like playfulness elevates “Hotel For Dogs” into being about more than just cute puppies and mischievous kids– though there’s plenty of that too. Like in WALL•E last year, all the various machines in the film serve a purpose, one device triggering another. For instance, when a dog bounds onto a springboard, a rope tugs on a stick tied to a boot on the other side of the room, to simulate knocking at the door; one of many gadgets to keep the dogs entertained and happy. The lesson here is one that’s wholesome and not too terribly syrupy (at least until the way-overstated and speechified ending): take care of the ones you love, keep them close, and protect them whether they be of flesh or fur. Maybe not the most groundbreaking morals ever encouraged in a kid’s flick, but honorable nonetheless. And even though the film has its share of problems (the contrivances stack up in a big way towards the end; the secondary characters are underdeveloped and so thus tough to care much about; and did we really need so many doggy poop jokes?), one would be remiss not to recommend such a charming and entertaining film for the younger set.