In only a few short years, Josh Hutcherson has risen to the top of the heap for child actors, and there's a reason why. He is identifiable and likable, free of affectations and unctuousness, and so very natural onscreen that the viewer instantly forms a connection to the characters he plays. It helps, of course, that he has starred in three of this decade's best family films2004's "The Polar Express
," 2005's "Little Manhattan
," and 2007's "Bridge to Terabithia
." Even when Hutcherson is relegated to more generic pictures, as in 2006's "RV
" and now "Firehouse Dog," he invaluably elevates the material. Without him, this boy-and-his-dog tale would probably just be another well-meaning but forgettable affair. With him, it is more involving and enjoyable than it otherwise should be, and strikes enough truthful notes to outweigh the typical poop and flatulence jokes that come with the territory.
12-year-old Shane Fahey (Josh Hutcherson) is a brooding and troubled pre-teen who has begun skipping school and recoiling from his relationship with single firefighter father Connor (Bruce Greenwood). Unable to deal with his feelings over the tragic death of his uncle, Shane is in need of a friend. One literally falls from the sky in the form of Dewey, an Irish terrier who drops out of an airplane during a lightning storm and lands in a truck filled with tomatoes. When these two unlikely friends meet one afternoon, it is not love at first sight for Shane, who looks at him as a mutt responsible for getting him caught for sneaking out of school early.
Stuck caring for Dewey until someone claims him, Shane gradually warms up to his new pet. As for Dewey, he quickly warms to Connor's whole firefighting squad and proves to have a knack for helping people. With an arsonist on the loose who has been setting mysterious fires throughout the city, Shane and Dewey team up to try and uncover the culprit. Meanwhile, Shane's real owner, Trey Falcon (Dash Mihok), narrows in on his search when it looks as if his dog may still be alive. Trey has a lot riding on his prized pooch, too; unbeknownst to Shane, Dewey is really Rexxx, a famous canine movie star.
Directed by Todd Holland (1998's "Krippendorf's Tribe"), "Firehouse Dog" is a tad overplotted. The arsonist subplot is admittedly a bit creepy, tackling a very serious subject but using it almost as exploitative entertainment, and the broadly satirical Hollywood stuff, with Rexxx being the star of such movies as "Jurassic Bark" and "The Fast and the Furriest," doesn't comfortably mesh with the realism of the rest of the story. The film could have also done without the base bodily function humor. One fart joke would have sufficed; eight or ten of them are overkill. All of these things satisfy many of prerequisites of this genre, of course, and it should be noted that said fart gags could have been handled much more distastefully than they are.
Where "Firehouse Dog" goes right is in the winning friendship between Shane and Dewey/Rexxx, and in the emotional conflicts Shane and father Connor must face in order to save their relationship and move forward. When screenwriters Claire Dee-Lim, Mike Werb and Michael Colleary stick to simplicity, they get it right and exhibit a certain amount of unexpected depth. Rexxx (played by four dogs all named after characters from "The Lord of the Rings") is talented in tricks and stunts, and he and Shane share solid chemistry, but this is Josh Hutcherson's film all the way. He is the lead human character, and is far and away the most interesting thing about the proceedings. Shane's dramatic confrontation with his father where he comes clean about the guilt he has kept bottled up inside is poignant and treated with a subtle hand, and Hutcherson sells the emotions just as he did in a similar scene in "Bridge to Terabithia
." Bruce Greenwood (2006's "Eight Below
") also turns in a nicely modulated performance as dad Connor, who senses a disconnect with his son but is often taken away from home because of his commitment as a firefighter captain.
"Firehouse Dog" is a little long, clocking in at nearly two hours, but the time spent with it is pleasant, undemanding, and doesn't talk down to its audience. All of the conventions of a tried-and-true dog pic are on hand and as old as dirtit's basically "Lassie" updated for modern timesbut even the clichés are handled with a sophisticated touch by director Todd Holland. Will "Firehouse Dog" go down in the annals of family classics? Probably not, but it's a quality dramedy that knows how to satisfy its target audience of youngsters and pet lovers.