Sunday, 18 October 2015

Oddball (2015) - Movie Review

Even as someone who has a dog, I have never really understood the appeal of films starring dogs. Whether it’s the Underdog adaptation, the numerous Air Bud sequels, the numerous Beethoven sequels… actually, that’s another thing: I have never understood why these films spawn franchises that last for that damn long. Anyway, while it may be the archetype of the 'a child and their pet' subgenre, unless your name is Disney, chances are you won’t be able to bring anything new to the proceedings. As such, probably the only way that this could be done any more, and make it to the big screen no less, is if it was based on a true story. Thankfully, we have another entry in the stranger than fiction files where in south-western Victoria early last year, a sheepdog saved a colony of penguins from predators like wolves and foxes. Well, anything for something potentially interesting to come out of Australian cinema, I say, but how well did this story translate to film?

The plot: Allan (Shawn Jacobson) is a chicken farmer who owns the rambunctious maremma sheepdog Oddball, who is known for wreaking havoc in the small town of Warrnambool whenever he gets out of his yard. However, when Allan discovers that the penguin sanctuary on nearby Middle Island, where his daughter Emily (Sarah Snook) works, is in danger from roving packs of foxes, he and his granddaughter Olivia (Coco Jack Gillies) decide to train Oddball to help guard the penguins. Of course, with how much trouble he’s been causing in town for the locals as well as tourism appointee Bradley (Alan Tudyk), they’re going to have to do all this without the town finding out before all the penguins are gone.

The cast list will likely mean about half as much to people outside of Australia as it does to people inside it. This kind of sucks because this is also a cast full of people who I seriously wish got more mainstream work. Shawn Jacobson, who first won Australia’s heart as the Dalai Lama of portable toilets Kenny Smyth, returns to working man’s form as Allan, bringing a lot of warmth as well as some decent emotion to the proceedings; seriously, it’s rare that an actor will genuinely look like he’s crying on screen like Shawn does in one of his scenes here. Sarah Snook, whom I’m glad didn’t just disappear off the face of the Earth after her masterful performance in Predestination, is a little disappointing considering she doesn’t really go that far beyond the stock ‘concerned single parent’ role she’s been given. Coco Jack Gillies shows a promising start as a child actor, able to interact with Jacobson and Snook with ease. Deborah Mailman probably makes for the most level-headed Mayor I’ve seen in any of these wacky pet stories, even making for some decent chemistry with Jacobson.

But the big pull for me in terms of actors was Frank Woodley as the dog catcher. I love his old work with Lano & Woodley and I’m glad that he gets to show off his knack for physical comedy and facial expression, even if he doesn’t get as much screen time as I would have liked. Of course, there are a couple of names here that should be a bit more recognizable outside our shores: Terry Camilleri, better known as Napoleon from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, as the delightfully ocker Judge Burns; and Alan Tudyk, whom the geekier among you may remember from Firefly, as Bradley. Tudyk is a bit out-of-place, considering he’s the only non-Aussie in the cast, but outside of his accent he fits in amongst the others remarkably well… even if his character is probably the most inconsistent of the lot.

Outside of the actors, this production already wins points for not going the CGI route and featuring actual animals on screen. You have no idea how sad it is that having flesh and blood animals in a live-action film is something laudable instead of just being part of the mission statement already. Points to Oddball himself as well, as Rebecca Faulkner, Luke Hura and Catherine Webb more than earned their pay checks for training him. Getting a dog to look happy is easy enough; getting a dog to look sad, provided you’re not willing to follow the example of The Adventures of Chatran, can be a bit more difficult; getting a dog to look ashamed? On command, no less? Hats off for that one, because I’ve seen a handful of actors from this year’s crop that wouldn’t even be able to process that feeling, let alone portray it on camera.

Anyone who is familiar with ‘wacky dog’ films like the Beethoven series will be expecting amazingly trite and played-out set pieces involving the main dog wreaking havoc in its wake during an important event. Yeah, we get one of those here too, but thankfully it’s gotten out of the way early. From there, as weird as it sounds, it almost takes on a Man With No Name tone with how the main plot progresses about Oddball protecting the penguins. This leads into a pretty nicely executed scene where we see Oddball protect a penguin couple from a fox, which features some of the better cinematography that doesn’t involve scenery. Given how this film is backed (in part) by National Geographic, this has the kind of camera work one would expect from their output: Sprawling nature locales and decent close-ups of the animals involved. It would be nice if that kind of love and care was echoed in the scenes involving the much larger mammals, but then again most people aren’t going to this film to see humans interact. Kind of a good thing, because this features a pretty blatant attempt to create a heel turn for a character that is so inconsistent and over-the-top that it reaches “the film doth protest too much” territory. Other than that, it mostly follows the standard framework for this type of story involving the main character and their pet: Pet is a nuisance, owner makes pet useful, pet becomes a hero. Real story or not, this is a film and not a documentary: You need to make it interesting.

All in all, considering the involvement of NatGeo and real-life inspiration for the film, this could have so very easily become a condescending and preachy mess; like a PETA PSA with less boobs. However, even considering the tried-and-true plot, the acting does a lot to help elevate this, especially Shawn Jacobson’s surprisingly emotional performance and the fine job Oddball himself does on screen. For those looking for a fun family film about a dog, this will probably fulfil that weirdly specific itch of yours. If you want something a bit meatier, then you’re probably barking up the wrong penguin sanctuary. There’s nothing all that wrong with it, but it doesn’t achieve anything all that big either; nothing gained, but nothing lost either.

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