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Hotel for Dogs  (2009)
2 Stars
Directed by Thor Freudenthal.
Cast: Emma Roberts, Jake T. Austin, Johnny Simmons, Kyla Pratt, Don Cheadle, Lisa Kudrow, Kevin Dillon, Troy Gentile, Robinne Lee, Ajay Naidu, Eric Edelstein, Yvette Nicole Brown.
2009 – 100 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for mild thematic elements, language and some crude humor).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 14, 2009.
The canines don't talk, but that is one of the only snapshots of realism in "Hotel for Dogs," a banal kid's flick that teaches as many wrongful lessons as it does virtuous ones. Based on the novel by Lois Duncan and adapted for the screen by Jeff Lowell (2008's "Over Her Dead Body"), Bob Schooley and Mark McCorkle (2005's "Sky High"), the film sets up a passable idea, but doesn't really know where to go with it. The story is dreary and, above all else, debuting director Thor Freudenthal has trouble building any kind of rooting interest in how everything will play out. You watch it, you wait for it to be over, and you go about your day without giving it another thought.

16-year-old Andi (Emma Roberts) and 11-year-old Bruce (Jake T. Austin) are orphaned siblings passed around from one foster family to the next. Currently living with uninvolved couple Lois (Lisa Kudrow) and Carl Scudder (Kevin Dillon), wannabe musicians who don't give them the time of day, Andi and Bruce while away their summer on the streets with secret pet dog Friday. When the two of them stumble upon the abandoned Francis Duke Hotel and find three pooches living there, they concoct a plan to rally together all of the homeless dogs in the city and start a makeshift hotel catering to them. Contraptions are built to feed them, allow them to do their business in a clean manner, and even a candy machine is stocked with shoes to chew on. Helpers arrive in the form of teenage pet shop workers Dave (Johnny Simmons) and Heather (Kyla Pratt), whom Andi and Bruce befriend. It is just a matter of time, however, before their illegal operation is discovered.

"Hotel for Dogs" is creative at times in the ways that the dogs are taken care of via Bruce's inventions, but the plot is rote and cornball, lacking forward momentum. Pressed for material, director Thor Freudenthal relies on the cuteness factor of the four-legged animals to carry the film, and it just doesn't work. The broad music score by John Debney (2008's "Meet Dave") is an annoyance that punctuates every hand movement and facial gesture with animated instrumental accompaniment, while the emotional manipulation at work fails because there is little to care about in the first place.

Strip the movie of the dog antics and all that is left is a message about how wrong euthanization is. There should have also been a message about the importance of not breaking the law; Andi and Bruce steal, swindle and trespass their way through the picture, and never seem to give a moment's thought to what they have done. When Bernie tries to lecture them on their criminal activities early on, they simply laugh it off. Andi and Bruce aren't really bad kids at heart—they mean well, even if they go about saving the dogs' lives in an unsavory fashion—but they also get off too easily and don't appear to have learned a whole lot by the end.

The cast is an affable bunch, but there is only one standout. Lisa Kudrow (2008's "Kabluey") is effortlessly funny as selfish foster parent Lois, who insists her duties are only to provide Andi and Bruce two meals a day and chastises Andi after listening to her story by saying, "That's thirty seconds of my life I'm never getting back." This is an admittedly thankless part for someone of Kudrow's talent, but she makes the most of it and gets the few laughs that there are. As Andi and Bruce, Emma Roberts (2007's "Nancy Drew") and Jake T. Austin (2006's "The Ant Bully") show charisma and make for believable siblings. Johnny Simmons (2008's "The Spirit"), Kyla Pratt (2004's "Fat Albert") and Troy Gentile (2008's "Drillbit Taylor") are equally equipped as performers, even if this project is but a stepping stone to hopefully better parts in better future projects. What Don Cheadle (2008's "Traitor") is doing here as social services worker Bernie is another story. He's fine, but obviously slumming it.

Animal-loving children will enjoy "Hotel for Dogs." They will also learn how to box up rocks, wrap them in plastic, and pass them off as merchandise to unsuspecting people on the streets. Animal-loving adult viewers, meanwhile, will wish they were seeing "Marley & Me," instead. Unpolished (the cityscapes look like matte paintings from 1939), undernourished and inconsequential, "Hotel for Dogs" is mediocre, at best.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman