There’s a statue I always make a point of passing by whenever I’m in Central Park in Manhattan. It’s of Balto, one of the “hero” sled dogs of Nome, Alaska’s diphtheria epidemic of 1925 and the subject of a pretty good animated film for kids.
So there’s an historic precedent for “Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero,” a modest-budget cartoon based on the true story of a mascot/war dog and valued member of his regiment in the trenches of World War I.
You want to teach kids about the horrors of The Great War, a somewhat sanitized cartoon is a better way to do it than say, the grim realism of “War Horse.”
It’s about a mutt who follows a friendly recruit from a small town Connecticut Main St. parade to the Yale parade grounds and basic training, where he becomes mascot and eventually life-saving war dog to 102nd Regiment of The Yankee Division, deployed to France in the pivotal final year of World War I.
The official record is, this generally untrained pooch warned his unit about mustard gas attacks, tracked down and comforted the wounded and took part in 17 battles in the Argonne, Château-Thierry and the final offensives that won the war. There are books about him and after his death, he was displayed at the Smithsonian Institution.
The filmmakers, from Canada’s TouTenKartoon and Fun Factory, don’t have him talk, they just tell his story, with a little creative and animated license. Robert Conroy (voiced by Logan Lerman) was the soldier who found him, got him to Europe and smuggled him home.
An indulgent drill instructor with a sense of humor lets him stay. “This dog drills better’n any of you.” A French soldier (Gerard Depardieu) mentors Conroy and Stubby once they reach the trenches.
And Robert Conroy’s sister (Helena Bonham Carter), the one he wrote letters to about the dog, narrates the tale.
The script traffics in some pretty tepid cliches, cooks who don’t like serving the dog, until the dog makes himself useful. Gaston, the Frenchman, complains about the teetotalling dog handler.
“You don’t like wine, Americain solzher?”
The precious few laughs here come via the easily recognizable canine behavior the animators capture. Running the dog through the obstacle course the soldiers train on is an obvious but cute touch.
“No Man’s Land” is rather less devastated and horrific than the real thing, but the trenches are realistically rendered, and the horrid German mustard gas attacks are vividly depicted.
Having the “Yankee” Division ship out, via train, through a sagebrush littered Western landscape (Western Connecticut?) can be dismissed as a Canadian animation mistake. Otherwise, the visuals aren’t bad.
Truthfully, it’s a tame and tepid affair for a kids’ film, with its chief recommendation being the chunks of truth built into its story. Stubby really did this and that, and the Frenchwomen of Château-Thierry really did sew him a chamois coat for his bravery and service to the town. He came home a celebrated war hero.
And while there’s no statue to him in Central Park, you can find him in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., another reminder of “Who’s a good boy?”
MPAA Rating: PG for war action and some thematic elements
Cast: Helena Bonham Carter, Logan Lerman, Gerard Depardieu
Running time: 1:24