Rating: ★★★☆☆

Hollywood’s own family fare could probably learn a little from this sweet-natured and surprisingly affecting Aussie hit. Sure, Red Dog is bogged down with the very same clichés and road blocks which define too many animal-centric films, but it is also shot through with more respect for its audience, pandering less to lazy sentimentality and focusing more on the unique bond between man and canine. In the heart stakes, it has plenty to spare, and that goes a long way.

As the film opens, the titular Red Dog appears near death, poorly and about to be put down by several distraught, fully-grown men. Through flashbacks, we learn of how he made it to this point, befriending a group of miners who collectively cared for him, such that he was a communal pet and in fact never had an actual owner. That is, at least, until American bus driver John (Josh Lucas) shows up, and the two form an unbreakable bond which endures beyond the most unexpected and difficult of circumstances.

To say much more about the plot will spoil a surprising left turn at the end of the film’s second act. Needless to say, this is for its first hour a raggedy, unapologetically goofy family film about the joys of owning a dog, complete with gorgeously photographed glimpses of the Australian outback. While films of this type largely adhere to a strictly conservative, vacuum-sealed sense of morality and propriety, Red Dog milks its cheeky Aussie flavour for all it is worth; the miners are a group of loveable rogues, drinking, fighting, and of course, playing with their beloved dog. Admittedly, a few lines of dialogue do feel a little much for a film aimed squarely at children – a joke about having your throat slit, for one – but for the most part the tone is more pleasantly demented than the homogenised treatment you would usually expect without being inappropriate.

It is at its core a film which does not talk down to its audience; John engages in a relationship with a secretary at the mine, Nancy (Rachael Taylor), and they sleep together, complete with a shot of them waking up in bed together. The film does not skirt around this, yet does not portray it in a way which children will find confusing or parents will find uncomfortable. There is plenty of honesty here, right through from the relationships between the humans, to especially that between the community and their lovely dog.

It follows that the human antics are never anywhere near as engrossing as those of the canine; smartly, the film doesn’t keep him off screen for long, and the human-centric scenes normally set-up for a cute moment in which the dog does something silly, like stealing a steak from the barbeque. His expressiveness, particularly in the face, is thoroughly charming, and the actors are clearly having a blast working with him.

It’s comparable to recent doggie pics like Marley and Me and Hachiko: A Dog’s Tale, firmly rooted in the notion of how a pet can bring people together and define at least part of one’s existence, while also not skirting around the more inevitable aspects of life, both canine and human. The more downcast third act is unassuming and gently, quietly affecting; it is honest without seeming trite or overly sentimental, and dog owners probably won’t be the only ones getting a little misty-eyed. The tragic drama never derails the generally carefree, jovial tone, though, and it is precisely the sort of unpretentious, sweet film which children will enjoy and their parents won’t find themselves bored by.

Beautifully shot, well-acted, and even boasting a requisite Bill Hunter cameo, Red Dog overcomes genre convention with plenty of heart and honesty.

Red Dog is released in UK Cinemas from today.

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This article was first posted on February 24, 2012