“Hotel for Dogs” is one of those high-concept movie ideas that flood the theaters this time of year. Is it surprising that it’s unsatisfying?
The only surprise, really, is how little canine comedy they’ve inserted in a movie with a title like “Hotel for Dogs.” I mean, it’s right in the title: “Dogs.” But the dog sight-gags are mostly kept to a minimum. A few poop-and-pee gags – but for the most part, this movie spends far too much time on its distinctly less interesting human cast.
Not that your average 8-year-old won’t like it. That, after all, is who it’s aimed at. And juveniles are a distinctly undiscriminating audience, one that will undoubtedly be wholly satisfied by the minimal dog humor. No doubt they’ll get a kick out of the kid cut-ups as well.
The kids are Emma Roberts and Jake T. Austin, who play siblings Andi and Bruce. They’re orphans, they’re foster kids but mostly they’re resourceful. They have to be, given that, in the previous three years, no matter how many foster homes they’ve shuttled through, they’ve managed to keep a dog named Friday, despite living in apartments with a no-pets policy.
Their latest foster situation is fairly bleak, with parents Lois (Lisa Kudrow) and Carl (Kevin Dillon) too obsessed with reviving their punk-metal band to focus on the kids. Focus? They don’t even notice the elaborate dog-operated elevator device Bruce has rigged from the apartment’s fire escape to the alley below, so Friday can access their bedroom.
(Bruce, it turns out, is a wizardly inventor, who utilizes cast-offs to create new inventions. These could be compared to Rube Goldberg devices, if that didn’t require explanation to anyone under about the age of 50.)
When the kids are arrested (for scamming a pawnshop to get money for dogfood), their kindly probation officer, Carl (Don Cheadle), gets them off the hook – but warns them that they’re on thin ice. The ice gets even thinner when Friday gets picked up by animal control. Andi and Bruce blow the last of their money paying his fine – then wind up running from the police and hiding in an abandoned hotel in their neighborhood.
The hotel, it turns out, is inhabited by a pair of pooches: a mastiff and a Boston terrier. So Friday makes himself at home and the kids figure they’ve got it made.
When Andi goes to the local pet shop to find cheap food, she catches the eye of the teen who works there (Johnny Simmons). She lies that she runs a shelter – and he convinces her to take in three dogs the pet shop hasn’t been able to unload.
Before long, Andi, Bruce and their friends have embarked on a mission: to save every stray dog in this unspecified Everytown (actually, downtown L.A.). Eventually, the cops get wise, the dogs get grabbed, the kids get arrested – connect the dots. You can probably figure it out from there.
As I said, lots of set-up for not much pay-off. Bruce starts putting together labor-saving devices from cast-offs in the hotel (which apparently was abandoned hurriedly, before anyone could scavenge any of the furnishings, or luggage for that matter). There are food-dispensing bowls on a timer, a series of self-play inventions, even a kind of canine outhouse where dogs sit on toilet seats and their droppings drop into little plastic bags that are shrink-wrapped and conveyor-belted out the window into a dumpster.
Otherwise, “Hotel for Dogs” is slim pickings, spending too much time on unfunny gags involving the kids and adults or the kids and other kids (who join in the spirit of the venture and help out). Roberts and Austin are competent young performers but one assumes they’d give a better showing if they had better material than this jumped-up TV script to work with.
I’ll admit I’m a sucker for performing dogs – and an absolute push-over for talking animals of any species. But even my internal 8-year-old came away disappointed.