Movie Review: Dogs try to save Christmas in “Pups Alone”

In a film era when too many filmmakers figure computer animation is the only way to make “Clifford” come to life, when “101 Digital Dalmatians” seems cheaper, when the only way to get Harrison Ford cto work with a dog is creating a computer-animated one, it’s always refreshing when a production chooses to go with real, fur-teeth-and-tails canines in a movie about dogs.

So kudos to the folks who hired cattle dogs, terriers, bulldogs, chihuahuas and their trainers to bring “Pups Alone” to life. Viewers can tell the difference, and generally, we prefer real dogs.

The movie surrounding them is nothing more than holiday TV-babysitting fare, something you park small children in front of while cooking, decorating or gift-wrapping. The dogs ae adorable. The movie? Not so much.

It’s an undemanding live-action “Secret Life of Pets/Home Alone” hybrid — bad jokes, middling human actors interacting with the critters and lots of canine slapstick involving defending a house with contraptions.

There are no adult-sophistication laughs in it. The simplistic story is cluttered up and almost overwhelmed by a first act is overwhelmed voice-over narration, animated with pop-up storybook images, just to get the kiddies up to speed on a plot that even a child should be able to follow.

But it’s harmless enough, and less of a commitment than gifting a child with a dog.

A widowed dog-gadget inventor (Tyler Hollinger) and the little girl (Isadora Lindsey) he’s too distracted to raise move to a “company town” where that company is a giant pet products conglomerate run by Eric Roberts.

Dad’s many gadgets, meant to simplify life in their house, are forever barking out “System Fail.” But maybe his dog “speech” translator collar will pay off.

Bitter work rival and neighbor Victor Von Manure (Dolph Lundgren) is out to sabotage that. And their dogs also take sides in the fight.

Smart and helpful Charlie the cattle dog (Jerry O’Connell) is desperate to mend fences between Dad and Grandpa Peter so that gramps can “bring Christmas back.” He has to intervene with the mailman to make that happen. And he’s got to defend their house from bulldog Vinnie (Danny Trejo), the “Dogfather,” and his gang of “Dogfellas” (Rob Schneider among them).

Victor has also hired two “Home Alone” cast-offs, low-rent mugs (Nicholas Turturro, Stelio Savante) who pose as homeless beggars at times, and as assistance-the-the-visually-impaired Christmas decorators (they ransack a little old blind lady’s house instead of setting up her tree). With all the Pet Tech employees at a corporate ski trip retreat at Big Bear Lake, the house and Robert’s many inventions will be easy pickings, right?

Charlie will need the help of the cute neighbor’s cute cattle dog (voiced by Jennifer Love Hewitt) and junkyard terrier Oliver (Malcolm McDowell) to “save Christmas.”

Little kids may be amused by the malfunctioning DIY gadgets that the dogs use to defend inventor Robert’s house full of inventions from the bad guys. They’ll probably laugh at the dog voices. And they might wonder that if Charlie can pick up packing paper and such and drop it in the trash can, why their dog can’t be similarly helpful.

The corporate retreat scenes, with their bonding-over-grownup-Twister and the like cut into montages, are unfunny tedium to all ages.

There’s nothing to this that would distract your average adult scrambling to get ready for the holidays. But the cute canines defending a house while they’re “Home Alone” might keep the tiniest tykes interested…for a little while, anyway.

Rating: unrated, mild profanity, dog poop gags

Cast: Dolph Lundren, Isadora Lindsey, Tyler Hollinger, Nicholas Turturro, Stelio Savante, Keith David and Eric Roberts, and the voices of Jerry O’Connell, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Danny Trejo, Rob Schneider and Malcolm McDowell

Credits: Directed by Alex Merkin, scripted by Brandon Burrows, Casey DeVargas and Jason Gruich. A Saban Films release.

Running time: 1:47

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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