This weekend, W. Bruce Cameron adds another line to his IMDB resume as A Dog’s Way Home hits theaters. You might remember, the first movie made from one of Cameron’s books, A Dog’s Purpose, had a little controversy prior to opening, but in the end, proved to be a mediocre maudlin affair that came and went. I read the current offering during a long flight and promise, if you liked the first one, you’ll like this one too.
It got me thinking about how often dogs make appearances in movies. From the earliest days of cinema, when Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp palled around with Scraps to today’s big blockbusters, canine celebrities have won the hearts of audiences again and again. In Hollywood lore, Rin-Tin-Tin actually won the most votes for Best Actor in the very first Academy Awards, but the Academy, not wanting to be considered a joke, gave the award to the human with the most votes, Emil Jannings.*
So with hundreds of movies to choose from, what are the best in show for dog lovers?
I put together a short list of my own top 10 (with a few honorable mentions). So, in no particular order, my favorite dog-centric movies:
Bolt is a white German Shepherd (no wonder I like him) who has sent his whole life on a television sound set as the star of an action series with his owner and co-star Penny. Poor Bolt does not realize he is not the superdog he portrays, so when studio executives get up to hijinx and Bolt is left on his own, he has to rely on his wits, “powers,” and a couple unlikely sidekicks to make his way back to his beloved Penny.
Tom Hanks at his Eighties’ best. The everyman actor portrays an uptight detective who becomes the unhappy heir of a murder victim’s dog ( a Dogue de Bordeuax). Hanks shows off his genial humor while the dog wreaks havoc through the movie and they are a great match, teaming up to solve the crime.(This was released in 1989 and went nose to nose with another buddy flick, K-9, starring James Belushi and the awesome German Shepherd , Rando, as the police dog, Jerry Lee. Turner & Hooch was a one-off hit, but K-9 sired two sequels, K-911 and K-9 P.I. )
Written by the late, great Harlan Ellison, this post-apocolyptic movie is set in the far distant future of 2024. It stars a young Don Johnson as the boy traveling through the nuclear wastelands with his dog, Blood. Fair warning: this is NOT a family film.
7. Marley & Me
Another movie made from a schmaltzy book, but this one gets a higher score from me than the Cameron fare. I have no reason to know this but simply feel that John Grogan wrote his book much more from the heart, where Cameron’s feel more formulaic. It stars Owen “Wow” Wilson and Jennifer Aniston, but the real scene stealers are the twenty-two, yes, twenty-two yellow labs used to play the part of Marley.
6. Isle of Dogs
I admit, I was a little late to this one, just watching it while on a cross country flight over the holidays. I loved it. It had the weird Wes Anderson vibe and great voice casting, and I think did a solid job exploring the bond between people with their dogs, dogs to their people, and even the motivations of dogs not owned by anyone but themselves. (I mean this is a purely anthropomorphic way.) I also appreciated the stopmotion style of the animation.
I am putting these two together because they are basically the same formula to me. Nineties nonsense that is pure popcorn drivel. Well-meaning, good-hearted drivel, but drivel nevertheless. Both were simple, but solid movies on their own, but kicked off ever-increasingly ridiculous sequels. My advice would be watch these with the kids and never even think about the rest of them.
5. My Dog Skip
A family drama with a h*ck of a cast, Frankie Muniz, Diane Lane, Luke Wilson. The story unfolds as someone tells the story of growing up as an only child in the 1940’s, a lonely boy until his mother gets him a dog. There are shenanigans, of course, the dog is a Jack Russell, but it is also a story about growing up.
There will be tears watching this one. A trio of housepets, Chance, Shadow, and Sassy, believe they have been abandoned by their owners and go on a cross country trek to find them. I am a grown man, but when the sun is setting and only two of the three make it back to the ranch… well, I’ll just leave that there and say be sure to have a kleenex handy.
3. Old Yeller
This is a classic film and has been referenced in so many pop culture venues, but few people today have actually seen the movie. See it, then hug your dog.
2. Best in Show
Presented in mockumentary style, this film follows five entrants in a prestigious dog show similar to Westminster Kennel Club Show. It cuts between the groups as they prepare, arrive in the city, primp their dogs, and through the show. Dry, but ridiculous, this stars several of the same people from This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, and Mighty Wind, so you know what to prepare for. An interesting treat here: Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy wote only a 15-page outline for the film and the cast improvised almost everything else. However, even with such a flimsy script,they ended up with more than 60 hours of film, so just imagine the outtakes!
Yes, this is cheesy at its fromage-y finest. I loved this movie as a kid because it starred one of my favorite funnymen, Chevy Chase and the ever-adorable Benji. Since I have no other Benji movies on this list, this will be the stand-in for all of them. This is not Chase’s only dog movie. (No, I’m not talking about his bombs like Man of the House.) He also had a canine co-star in Shelby:the Dog Who Saved Christmas, and voiced the lead role in Karate Dog.
Of course, this list is incomplete. I could have included the wonderful, My Dog Tulip, or The Artist, or Because of Winn-Dixie, or I Am Legend. (Don’t tell me that’s not a movie about a dog, it is.) This doesn’t even touch on the myriad of Disney dogs, including 101 Dalmations, Lady and the Tramp, and The Fox and The Hound. So, what are your favorite dog movies?
*It is most likely untrue that RinTinTin was voted Best Actor. That is most probably a joke by Jack Warner who was not taking the Academy seriously. It makes a good story though.