PLOT The animated true story of a military dog honored for his service during World War I.
CAST Logan Lerman, Gerard Depardieu, Helena Bonham Carter
RATED PG (themes of war and fallen soldiers)
BOTTOM LINE A winning story, though generically told. Best for very young viewers.
First things first: The title character of the animated film “Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero,” was real. His rank may or may not be official, but according to the soldiers who fought with him on the Western Front in World War I, Stubby saved lives, risked his own and boosted morale. He is even said to have captured a German spy.
It’s the kind of story that sells itself, especially with Stubby’s underdog origins as a mangy stray and his adoption by a kindly young private, Robert Conroy (the voice of Logan Lerman). Why it took roughly 100 years for this heartwarming tale to make it to the screen is an open question, but a relatively new studio based in Georgia, Fun Academy, snagged it for their first animated feature.
The good news is that they’ve made Stubby into an endearing little guy. He’s a stocky terrier of uncertain pedigree, rendered with big, slightly crossed eyes, a surefire cuteness technique borrowed from Disney (think Dopey, Thumper or the smaller Dalmations). It’s tough to resist a dog who wanders into a training camp, instinctively sits at attention and wins over the commanding officer with a stiff-pawed salute.
Director Richard Lanni and his co-writer, Mike Stokey II, also do a nice job of paying tribute to the realities of war without getting too intense. We see soldiers bowled over by shells and hands outstretched in desperation (we also learn of one death) but the horror stops there. Gerard Depardieu, as the jaunty French soldier Gaston Baptiste, provides a sense of European Weltschmerz when he says of his hearty laugh, “it only protects my fragile heart.” Helena Bonham Carter, as Conroy’s sister on the homefront, serves as a somewhat extraneous narrator.
The bad news is that the animation in “Sgt. Stubby,” is awfully bare-bones. Faces aren’t terribly expressive, backdrops look plain and the animated “cast” is minimal. (When Conroy is taken to the infirmary, he’s the only person in it.) All this is probably due to a shortage of funds rather than imagination, but the overall lack of detail can be disappointing to the eye.
That said, “Sgt. Stubby” should work well for very young viewers whose imaginations will fill in the gaps. As a side note, the canine war hero now resides, mounted and decorated, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.