I’m sure everyone’s familiar with the old acting adage “never work with children or animals”. Well, similar caution should generally be given to “not watch films entered around animals…especially dogs.” Don’t get me wrong, there are exceptions but not every film can be 101 Dalmatians. Dog movies walk an ever-precarious tightrope teetering over treacly schmaltz ready to make the film unbearable. Red Dog: The Early Years (known in other countries as Red Dog: True Blue, a pseudo-prequel to the 2011 Australian film about a beloved dog named Red Dog (itself based on a dog by the same name in Australia in the 70’s) begins with a middle-aged man (hello to Jason Isaacs) weeping over this film in a cinema and later telling his son the story of the dog he grew up with, the dog the movie they’ve been watching was apparently based on.
So far so disheartening…however, the bulk of the film takes as its setting rural Australia in the final days of the 1960’s with Jason Isaacs’ younger self (Pan’s Levi Miller) living off the land after moving from Sydney and befriending this canine dubbed Blue. In truth, the dog is largely incidental for much of the ensuing film, which is more a coming-of-age tale. Shot against the backdrop of the dusted orange-red sands of the outback, Early Years is if nothing else a very handsomely presented film and the sense of warmth rings through loud and clear with the film evoking Australia’s aboriginal heritage. A film brimming with colour it always catches the eye whilst the skilled direction and editing impresses with presentation.
Even given Pan’s disappointing response (though I defend aspects of it), it cant be disputed that Levi Miller is a gifted performer and his confidence carries him through quite a great deal of emphasis for such a young performer and even plot elements that could be seen as hokey or cloying if mishandled (such as his infatuation with a pretty and young teacher) have an earnestness to them that wins out whilst the rollicking soundtrack of 60’s and 70’s Aussie rock gives the film a nice flavour, exotic to international audiences, nostalgic to Australians.
Whilst the film does do well to keep its sentimentality at a safe distance, that’s not to say Early Years completely masters how to utilise tone. Being a film set in the rugged wilderness, danger abounds but such sequences are dealt with this strange comic lightness that sits uneasily alongside the actual threat present and when the film aims for actual laughs it doesn’t often hit the mark (although when it does, the results are very strong).
To many a discerning viewer, Red Dog: The Early Years throws up a lot of red flags (pun not intended). Those unfamiliar with the preexisting film could understandably wary of seeing a film where cute puppies frolic at the expense of a worthwhile plot. Thankfully, this film is of a higher pedigree (okay, that pun was intended) albeit at the expense of same canine focus so those expecting cute dog antics may need to look elsewhere. However, most people will at least put up with watching a good movie for its own sake and at the very least Red Dog: The Early Years fulfils that criteria nicely.
Red Dog: The Early Years is available on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital download from Monday, July 24th; rated 12. Check out the trailer below.