'Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero': Film Review

A dog’s purpose — in the trenches.

Logan Lerman, Helena Bonham Carter and Gerard Depardieu voiced this animated true story of a dog who battled the Germans during the First World War.

Mock his name, make fun of his looks, but Sergeant Stubby, the mangy Boston terrier who fought alongside the Allies during WWI, was a true-blue American soldier. The brave war dog survived 17 battles in the trenches and even once captured a German — no, not a German shepherd, but an actual German spy. After the ceasefire, Stubby became a national celebrity, parading around the country, meeting with several presidents and serving as the official mascot for the Georgetown Hoyas. When he died in 1926, the New York Times wrote a half-page obituary about his life.

Not bad for a mutt from New Haven, Conn., whose story has now been immortalized in the feature-length cartoon Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero. Very much a by-the-book affair, this kid-friendly, rather jingoistic account of the Great War and the canine that helped to win it also delves into some of the darker sides of the conflict. There are no talking animals or wink-wink pop culture asides a la Pixar, but rather straightforward dramatic scenes depicting shell-shocked troops in combat, mustard gas attacks and even a few casualties. Unlikely to be a box-office smash, the well-assembled period piece could still appeal to children old enough to grasp its themes, while serving as a valuable educational tool to teach them about a war that ended nearly a century ago.

Narrated by Helena Bonham Carter, Stubby retraces the titular hound’s path to glory, which began in late 1917 when he ran into Robert Conroy (voiced by Logan Lerman), a young private training on the Yale University campus in Connecticut. The stray and the soldier soon became friends, with the latter teaching Stubby how to stand up on his hind legs and salute his superior officers. When Conroy is called to action, Stubby finds a way to follow his master all the way to the battlefields of France.

It’s there that the bulk of the film takes place, with director Richard Lanni (whose credits include several war documentaries) focusing on the details of trench warfare, such as the use of gas masks, the constant rumble of mortar fire and the pools of mud caused by the incessant rainstorms. Amid the chaos, Stubby quickly proves himself to be a worthy combatant, fearlessly dashing across no man’s land, alerting the Allies about incoming shells and saving soldiers in danger.

The script, written by Lanni and military adviser Mike Stokey (The Thin Red Line), also hashes out the stories of Conroy and other soldiers, including a French gourmet and bon vivant, Gaspard (voiced by Gerard Depardieu, of course), who accompanies Conroy on dangerous sorties across enemy lines. Other characters include a German American (Jim Pharr) who suffers prejudice at the hands of his fellow troops and winds up getting badly wounded, and a comic relief character named Olsen (Jordan Beck), whose fate is sealed on the very last day of the war. (The film underlines the fact that although the armistice was signed early on the morning of Nov.11, 1918, the battles went on for several more hours, resulting in many unnecessary deaths.)

Indeed, Stubby hardly shies away from the tough realities of what was known as the War to End All Wars, and it feels both proficiently documented and generally credible, even if it’s hard to believe that a dog did everything you see happening on screen. Animation, which was handled by Technicolor and Mikros Animation in Canada, convincingly pushes the realism factor, with the battle scenes and European backdrops extremely well-rendered. The score by Patrick Doyle (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) also hits the right emotional notes in the right places, especially during a closing sequence where the legend of Stubby finally becomes fact.    

Distributor: Fun Academy Motion Pictures
Production company: Fun Academy Motion Pictures
Cast: Logan Lerman, Helena Bonham Carter, Gerard Depardieu, Jordan Beck, Jim Pharr
Director: Richard Lanni
Screenwriters: Richard Lanni, Mike Stokey
Producers: Laurent Rodon, Emily Cantrill
Executive producers: Frank Lumpkin III, Tom Sheehan, Richard Lanni
Editor: Mark Solomon
Composer: Patrick Doyle
Casting directors: Linda Lamontagne
Art directors: Pierre-Nicolas Klepper-Bayle, Jean-Noel Le Moal
Heads of animation: Marc-Andre Baron, Philippe Zerounian

Rated PG, 84 minutes