by David Cornelius
“Bridge to Terabithia” and “The Last Mimzy” were bad films, yes. Obnoxiously, spectacularly bad. But here’s the thing: despite their utter awfulness, the were ambitious projects that aimed to bring intelligence, respect, and imagination to realm of family films. Now comes “Firehouse Dog,” which is about a dog who farts, burps, snores, poops, and rides a skateboard, and the question arises: Is it worse to strive for greatness and fail, or to strive for mediocrity and succeed?The movie is a jumble of ideas. Some of them actually work, and a few of those that actually work actually work quite well. But most of them do not work, although they do hit their stated objectives of getting kids to laugh by showing a cute dog doing silly things. There is the aforementioned farting, burping (“mouth farts,” as they call ’em here), and snoring, all of which arrive whenever the writers can’t figure out how to wrap up a scene. A key punchline comes when we notice the dog has relieved himself into a pot of stew; we do not see the event, but later, we are treated to the sight of him peeing on a fire. And, yes, he rides a skateboard, and pulls blankets off of people, and cocks his head on cue, and when those tricks fail the script, CGI comes in to let him do backflips and Jackie Chan-esque wall-climbing stunts. In one scene, he wears sunglasses while “Bad to the Bone” plays on the soundtrack.
"What, no fire hydrant jokes?"
So yes, “Firehouse Dog” is, in parts, everything you think “Firehouse Dog” is going to be: base, stupid, and tiresome. Occasionally, randomly funny, but mostly lame.
And yet there are other parts where “Firehouse Dog” is actually good. The main plot involves a scrappy team of firefighters and their efforts to stop a serial arsonist; we come to really like the firefighters, and the third act is packed with predictable yet surprisingly compelling, tense action sequences. Where has this movie been? Why couldn’t this movie come out to play more, instead of the farting, pooping, extreme sports junk?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The film opens with a parody of Hollywood. Rexxx (even his name is extreme, I suppose) is Tinseltown’s top stunt pooch, having made millions starring in “Jurassic Bark” and “The Fast and the Furriest,” ha ha. Alas, he falls out of an airplane while filming a stunt, safely landing in the back of a tomato truck. (Well, if you’re going to buy the idea of a stuntdog, then safely landing from 20,000 feet because of tomatoes should not be a quibble.)
Rexxx is then found by Shane (Josh Hutchinson of “Terabithia”), the lonely son of the local fire chief (Bruce Greenwood); at first they don’t get along, because the dog - now named “Dewey” because of the movie prop nametag he’s wearing - ratted Shane out while the kid was playing hooky, but of course the two become best friends, especially once Shane realizes the mutt can ride a skateboard.
For a while, it looks like the movie will be all about Shane’s problem relationship with his dad, who’s always too busy at work. But Dewey being adopted by the engine house takes care of that plotline; Shane starts hanging out at the station, too, and Dewey makes sure Shane gets good grades now, and that’s about it with that plotline.
The station, by the way, is your average cultural mixed bag, a supporting cast designed by Hollywood boardroom: the hefty black guy, the not-hefty black guy, the sassy Latina, the clumsy white guy. There is also a sexy captain at the rival station, one that makes googly eyes at Shane’s dad just long enough for the movie to get sentimental but not so long that the kids in the crowd start making kissy sounds in disgust. Everyone involved provides performances far stronger than the material deserves, and they help us get through many of the dopier scenes by supplying us with characters we actually want to watch, despite ourselves.
More with the jumble. An exciting fire rescue is followed by a gimmicky Dewey-tries-to-win-a-dog-tricks-competition scene, which is followed by a montage of the scrappy firehouse crew having good times. We’re tossed not one but two tearjerk scenes in which Rexxx’s original owner returns to claim the mutt. Shane and Dad talk about their feelings. The solution to the arson mystery will surprise nobody over the age of seven who was awake for the first two-thirds of the film. All of this swirls together without any attempt at a workable rhythm or logic, running too long in the process.
And yet, when we arrive at the climax, we ignore it all, because the capper - Shane is trapped inside a fire - is actually a slick, admirable piece of suspense. Director Todd Holland (“Krippendorf’s Tribe,” “The Wizard”) manages to do in these few minutes - and the earlier fire rescue scene - what he doesn’t bother to do anywhere else: make “Firehouse Dog” something more than it was supposed to be. Alas, these are good moments in a movie that doesn’t know what to do with good moments.
But it does know what to do with stupidity, and so most of the film sits firmly in a comfort zone of fart jokes and dogs doing cool tricks. Kids will like it enough, then forget about it by the end of the day. Movies like “Firehouse Dog” are a dime a dozen, but I guess trying for something more would be too much effort. It strives for not-much, and boy howdy, does it ever succeed.A final thought: “Firehouse Dog” reunites Greenwood with his “Thirteen Days” costar Steven Culp. In that film, they played John and Robert Kennedy, and one wonders what an improvement they might have provided to their new movie had they reprised those roles.
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originally posted: 04/11/07 22:04:18