'Red Dog: True Blue': Film Review | Sundance 2017

Courtesy of Sundance
Levi Miller and Phoenix in 'Red Dog: True Blue'
Oh, why not, two paws up.

The beloved Australian Kelpie that made the 2011 release a domestic smash returns in this origin story about the indelible bond between a boy and his dog, screening at both the Sundance and Berlin festivals.

How meta! It's 2011 and workaholic Perth dad Michael (played with a passable Aussie accent by Jason Isaacs) reluctantly honors a Friday-night promise to take his two boys to the local multiplex to see "some dog movie," doing his best on the way to discourage their pleas for a pup of their own. The flick they catch is — wait for it — Red Dog, and while Michael attempts to disguise his tears over the heart-tugging ending as hay fever, it turns out he has a childhood connection to the iconic Australian Kelpie hero. That unlikely link spills out in a bedtime remembrance that shapes this prequel, Red Dog: True Blue.

If you can get past the narrative contortions of that setup, and live with the needless back-and-forth between adult Michael in Perth and his 11-year-old self, Mick (Levi Miller), chances are you'll be captivated by this origin story about the russet-colored sheep dog that, according to legend, roamed the Outback in the 1970s and united a fractious community. I confess, I was willingly suckered into it.

The original Red Dog grossed $21 million domestically, nudging its way into the all-time top 10 homegrown Australian releases, and there were clear reasons why local audiences gave the movie such a warm embrace. First among them was a canine protagonist that embodied a quintessential national character type — a cheeky, gregarious trickster, rough around the edges but a lovable, loyal friend. It was also a story grounded in folklore and steeped in colorful local myth, bulging with affectionately broad 'stralian caricatures. But those local assets failed to translate to offshore markets.

The prequel, again directed by Kriv Stenders, in his sweet spot with this material, is by no means a better movie, but it might end up being more appealing to audiences beyond national borders. For a start, it sits more squarely in the family-film mold. Written by returning screenwriter Daniel Taplitz, it’s a classic-cut coming-of-age story recounting the adventures together of a boy and his dog. After a solid if not spectacular home launch, the film's international profile is off to a promising start, with consecutive slots in the kids’ sections at the Sundance and Berlin festivals.

When young Mick’s father dies in 1968 and his unstable mother checks into a treatment facility, the boy is packed off from Sydney to stay on the isolated cattle station owned by his Grandpa (Bryan Brown) in the sparsely populated Pilbara region in the north of Western Australia. Grandpa is a rugged bloke with an unexpected taste for high culture, listening to opera on his gramophone for relaxation. Transported to this intimidating red-earth landscape, which he describes as "like Mars," Mick at first is the typical city kid, fearful of deadly spiders and snakes.

The birthday gift of a motorbike helps Mick to adapt, but the real turning point comes when, during a post-cyclone cleanup, he finds a puppy stranded in a tree on a flooded plane, covered in bluish mud. He names the dog Blue before a wash reveals its rich red coat, and the two become instantly inseparable, breaking down gruff Grandpa's resistance to having an animal in the house.

Given that the pup is so off-the-charts cute, Stenders and Taplitz are perhaps a little hasty in their jump to one year later. But the image of Mick racing across the countryside on his bike, with Blue bounding along beside him, is a disarming one.

Cinematographer Geoffrey Hall, who also shot the first movie, cranks up the colors in the rocky landscape, with its silvery gum trees under brilliant blue skies, in glowing hues perhaps heightened by the magical filter of Michael's memory. The scenic views often mimic the compositions of indigenous watercolorists of the region from that period to pleasing effect. The light in this part of Australia is like nowhere else in the world, and Stenders and Hall take full advantage.

Mick's interaction with the various characters that live and work on the cattle station provides agreeable narrative texture. There's eccentric Chinese cook Jimmy Umbrella (Kee Chan), Vietnam-vet chopper pilot Bill Stemple (Thomas Cocquerel), and Taylor Pete (Calen Tassone), a young Aboriginal stockman whose involvement in the burgeoning native land rights movement seems informed by more contemporary sensibilities. That culturally evolved view comes close to pandering at times, notably in the quiet revelation that stockmen mates Little and Big John (Syd Brisbane and Steve Le Marquand) are actually a lot closer than brothers. But, hey, if it's exposing young audiences to inclusive attitudes, who's complaining?

It might require too much indulgence from some audience members, however, to swallow the divisive figure of late, real-life mining magnate Lang Hancock (John Jarratt, minus his Mean Creek knife), capping off dinner by joining Grandpa in a dueling-banjos session. Given that Hancock was a hard-line conservative known for his unsympathetic views on the rights of indigenous Australians, the benign cameo seems generous, to say the least. But his appearance does serve to indicate the shift away from farming toward iron ore mining in that part of the country.

Conflict more significant to the central character emerges when Grandpa worries that Mick needs help with his radio-correspondence schooling, so he flies in a tutor from Perth, Betty Marble (Hannah Mangan Lawrence). A fresh-faced beauty just six years older than Mick, she casts an instant spell on him, but guitar-strumming Bill's more worldly way with the ladies sparks rivalry for Betty's affections. With her hankering to travel to San Francisco and be a part of the Summer of Love, Betty also represents a somewhat half-baked attempt to capture the winds of social change.

While the stakes never climb too high in Taplitz's screenplay, the episodic story is laced with rollicking moments of mischief and deeds of daring and recklessness, all of which evoke vintage Saturday matinees — a close encounter with a wild horse; a raging fire that threatens the homestead; a brush with the Aboriginal spirit world in a cave with Dreamtime history. The dog that gives the film its title becomes more sidekick than star in all this. But Blue and Mick make a winning duo, and when the time comes for the boy to return to the city, only the hardest hearts won't be moved.

The swelling notes of cornball sentiment, the invigorating escape of childhood adventure, and even the obligatory touches of eye-rolling humor, such as Blue's toxic farts wafting from the sofa during lesson times, all come together into an entertaining package. Visually, the film is a treat, with its magnificent locations and picturesque production design — Grandpa's mint-green pickup pops like the native flora against the rich ochre shades of the land.

Led by the very likeable young Miller, with veteran Brown nicely playing off his weathered screen persona as a gruff man with a warm heart, the cast is appealing if not required to do anything terribly nuanced. Isaacs' role is as much a plot device as a character, but serves to show how the companionship between a boy and his dog can reverberate for a lifetime. And Blue, of course, is an expressive natural on-camera, even if Stenders overdoes the endless range of reaction growls, whimpers, groans and barks, venturing almost into Scooby-Doo territory at times. (Original Red Dog star Koko died in 2012, scoring a dedication on the end credits here; his able replacement is named Phoenix.)

Composer Cezary Skubiszewski's score injects jaunty country flavor via lots of harmonica and twangy guitar early on, and enhances the story's climactic emotional notes with a refreshingly restrained hand. There's also a fun selection of vintage Oz rock (The Easybeats, Sherbet, Ted Mulry Gang, Daddy Cool and others), which plays fast and loose with period accuracy but helps keep things bouncing along. While ardent lovers of the first film might grumble that this follow-up has a less distinctive personality, family audiences coming to it fresh should succumb to its doggy charms.

Production company: Woss Group Film Productions
Cast: Jason Isaacs, Levi Miller, Bryan Brown, Hannah Mangan Lawrence, Thomas Cocquerel, John Jarratt, Justine Clarke, Zen McGrath, Winta McGrath, Steve Le Marquand, Syd Brisbane, Kee Chan, Kelton Pell, Calen Tassone, Josie Alec
Director: Kriv Stenders
Screenwriter: Daniel Taplitz
Producers: Nelson Woss, Bryce Menzies
Executive producers: Graham Burke, Joel Pearlman, Di Bain, John Poynton, Greg Parker, Marc van Buuren, Daniel Taplitz, Colin Vaines
Director of photography: Geoffrey Hall
Production designer: Sam Hobbs
Costume designer: Anna Borghesi
Music: Cezary Skubiszewski
Editors: Jill Bilcock, Rodrigo Balart
Casting: Christine King

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Kids)
Sales: Good Dog Distribution

89 minutes

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