Mark Reviews Movies

Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Richard Lanni

Cast: The voices of Logan Lerman, Gérard Depardieu, Helena Bonham Carter, Jordan Beck, Jim Pharr, Jason Ezzell, Brian Cook

MPAA Rating: PG (for war action and some thematic elements)

Running Time: 1:25

Release Date: 4/13/18

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 12, 2018

A bright and often cheery depiction of the First World War might seem like a strange thing, but that's what we get with Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero. As with any movie, intent and context matter—especially in this case. At no point do the filmmakers lead us to believe that the film will be an accurate representation of the Great War, which led to over 18 million deaths and several million more wounded. This is World War I as seen through the lens of a children's story, and for what it is, the film is surprisingly effective.

It's primarily the tale of a scrappy dog—a stray mutt of an almost indeterminable but undeniably adorable breed. That the screenplay, written by director Richard Lanni and Mike Stokey, is based on a true story is almost unbelievable. In the film, the dog becomes a hero and a national treasure through its acts of heroism—warning soldiers and French villagers of mustard gas attacks, rescuing injured infantrymen from no man's land, capturing a German spy with its teeth and its bark.

Truth here turns out to be stranger than fiction. Stubby, the dog who finds himself on the frontlines of France against a German march toward Paris, was real. His acts of courage apparently have enough documentation and first-hand accounts to have earned the pup a place in the Smithsonian (Well, at least the part of the dog that would make him recognizable is on display in the museum, but let the kids figure out that part when they get older). There's apparently no official military documentation that Stubby earned a promotion to the rank of sergeant, but does an honorary title awarded to a dog seem like the sort of thing for which any Army would create paperwork?

Whatever the real Stubby may or may not have done is almost irrelevant in the big scheme of the war. The fact of his presence in the midst of the fighting, while soldiers and civilians were being killed over mere feet or less of land, is enough for a legend of the dog, based on truth and likely some exaggeration, to emerge. It's a little thing that means a lot—a piece of home, a reminder of normalcy amidst the smoke and gas and artillery fire of the war, or a representation of innocence that otherwise seems lost within the carnage and destruction. It's no wonder that there were stories. It's little wonder that the little dog became a well-publicized hero when the war was finished.

The film may be aimed at kids, serving as an introductory lesson to the history of the First World War, but its appeal is much broader. Here, essentially, is the story of the bond between a human and a pet. It understands that every boy loves his dog and that every man retains that childlike affection, even—and, in the case of this story, especially—if that man becomes a soldier.

Stubby begins as a stray in New Haven, Connecticut, feeding on trash or relying on the kindness of strangers. A parade of recruits at the local Army base catches the dog's attention. When Robert Conroy (voice of Logan Lerman), one of the soldiers-in-training, tosses the dog a cookie, the young man ends up with a constant companion, who sneaks into the base looking for more food.

The dog learns to march in formation, to sit at attention, and to salute an officer, earning him a spot as the camp's mascot. Meanwhile, Robert and his fellow soldiers are preparing to ship off to France. After receiving a sad farewell from Robert, Stubby chases after his human pal and stows away on the ship to France.

The style of the film's computer animation is simplistic, with the characters appearing as cartoonish representations, although the backdrops of a war-torn France and the trenches are much more detailed. What sets this apart from what we might expect from a kid-friendly cartoon about an animal is how Stubby is portrayed. He's a dog, plain and simple, who "speaks" with barks and whines and the wagging of his nub of a tail. There's little by way of anthropomorphizing the dog, except a slightly more expressive face and in the way that the story gives him some daring, if unlikely, actions—chasing the train and, after recovering from a grenade injury, trekking across France to return to Robert.

This is far from saying that the film attempts any sort of realism. The battles, naturally, are bloodless, and there's little sense of the real carnage of this particular war. That's to be expected, of course, given the target audience, and for what it's worth, the film does approach some difficult topics as much as it can. Prejudice against a German-born American solider within the ranks allows Robert and others the chance to teach that an American's country of origin, ethnicity, or way of speaking doesn't make the person any less American. Robert's confrontation with a German spy, who calls him "comrade" after being captured, has the doughboy looking straight in the face of an enemy who looks just like him.

Everything here is clearly, simply communicated, from animated newspaper photos to Helena Bonham Carter's narration as Robert's sister, which employs a calm tone and some euphemistic tricks to lighten the horrors of war. Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero is a fine enough primer course for kids. Surely, though, the brave and cute little dog is a character for everybody, regardless of age.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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