Monday, April 09, 2018

Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero

He put Lassie and the dearly departed dog from The Artist to shame. He even did something neither Trump or Obama could be bothered to do. He served his country in military uniform—and he was just a little terrier, but with a big heart. The documented true story of the 102nd Infantry Regiment’s mascot comes to animated life in Richard Lanni’s Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero (trailer here), which opens this Friday nationwide.

The story of the ferocious little canine hero of WWI might sound like a tall tale, but most of the high points of his chronicle are confirmed by the Smithsonian’s “The Price of Freedom” exhibition, where Sgt. Stubby was one of the stars. Like many war heroes, he came from modest beginnings. In this case, he was a stray, living paw-to-mouth on the streets of New Haven before he attached himself to the 102nd in general and particularly to Private Robert Conroy (eventually promoted to Corporal).

In theory, a military base is no place for a pet, but Stubby (he had yet to receive his “rank”) continued to impress Conroy’s sergeant and the commissioned officers above him with his military discipline and his obvious benefits to morale. They intended to leave him behind for his own safety, but he stowed away on the troop transport, like the dogs in The Incredible Journey. At least, that is how Helena Bonham Carter tells the story, in her voice-overs in the persona of Conroy’s beloved sister Margaret, his only family at the time.

Hats off to Lanni and his co-screenwriter Mike Stokey, because they pull off a rather remarkable feat in this film. They give viewers plenty of endearing canine pluckiness, without ever trivializing the harsh reality of war. Through the eyes of Stubby and Conroy with see the terrors of gas attacks, trench warfare, and heavy artillery bombardments. There is never any doubt how brutal the warfighting conditions were for WWI soldiers, yet is it completely appropriate and accessible for family viewing.

The CGI animation is also far better than you would expect from something produced outside the major studios and prestigious boutique shingles. Sgt. Stubby is expressive, while still being relatively dog-like in his movement. Conroy and his G.I. buddies are also reasonably well-developed characters, with very little reliance on shtick or cliché. His garrulous French comrade, Gaston Baptiste (voiced by Gérard Depardieu, doing his best work probably since Valley of Love) is initially a bit of a joie de vivre-stock character, but he has some surprisingly poignant moments in the third act.

Frankly, Sgt. Stubby is a refreshing film in many ways. It has none of the motor-mouthed hipster sarcasm found in recent studio animation. Instead, it takes time to establish its characters and finds lowkey humor in Sgt. Stubby’s appealing dog antics. In terms of tone, Ethel & Ernest might be the closest comparison. Although it forthrightly addresses the horrors of war, it is also still unabashedly patriotic. There is real heroism in this film, both human and canine.

It is worth re-emphasizing most of Sgt. Stubby’s heroics are legitimately documented. He really did go out into No Man’s Land to find wounded soldiers and provided early warning of incoming shells thanks to his superior canine sense of hearing. Heck, you have to wonder why it took so long for someone to make a film about him, but again, Lanni, Stokey, and their producers deserve credit for recognizing the value of his story. This is a classy production, featuring an era-appropriate score composed by regular Kenneth Branagh collaborator Patrick Doyle. Highly recommended for general audiences, Sgt. Stubby opens across the country this Friday, with considerable Thursday evening (4/12) screenings also scheduled, including at the AMC Empire in New York.