What's in a name? Perhaps nothing is more interesting about the new film Hotel for Dogs than that title. On seeing the film, my hopes were dashed. It's not a TV remake, with pooches playing the parts made famous by James Brolin, Anne Baxter, and Connie Sellecca. Damn. No, the title is more prosaic, of the truth in advertising variety. One can't blame Hollywood this time: they're simply following the lead of children's author Lois Duncan, whose most well-known book I Know What You Did Last Summer suggests she was having an off day when she named her 1971 book Hotel for Dogs. Anyway, that's all rather beside the point of the latest film to satisfy Hollywood's fetish for those cute little red bellboy caps. You wouldn't be reading this if you didn't want an answer to that burning question: is Hotel for Dogs any good?
Answer: meh. Hotel for Dogs is, basically, the dramatic equivalent of a dog calendar: cute dogs in cute situations. Considering that Marley & Me has proved a license to print money, the timing could hardly be better for this inoffensive children's film from first-time feature director Thor Freudenthal (who previous short film was named—wait for it...—"Motel"). Hotel for Dogs concerns two orphaned kids determined to make life miserable for their fifth set of foster parents in a two-year period. Eleven-year-old Bruce (Jake T. Austin) and sixteen-year-old Andi (Emma Roberts) are partners in crime, scammers who bristle under the "care" of the stupid, selfish Lois and Carl Scudder (Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon in bad hair-band wigs) . The kids respect only their compassionate man from Social Services, Bernie Wilkins (Don Cheadle, providing the Mark of Distinction), but even he isn't in on their secret: their dog Friday, who they're at pains to keep hidden lest he be taken away.
One day when they're dodging the dreaded "coverall-wearing goons" of Animal Control (nobody gets it worse in movies...am I right?), Bruce and Andi stumble into the condemned Hotel Francis Duke, where they find a couple of cute strays are already squatting. Bruce gets a brainstorm: why not let Friday live there too? They can check up on the dogs, and everything will be A-OK. Of course, Bruce gets attached to the strays (who the presumably well-read boy names Lennie and Georgia), and soon the siblings realize they have room for more. Before long, dozens of dogs are living in the hotel, and Andi—who presumably has never seen a movie before—is asking, "How much trouble can they be?"
It's all as formulaic as kibble (though made more appetizing by Cheadle, who has always been known for his charity work). There's a pet shop boy named Dave (Johnny Simmons) to provide romance for Andi and, therefore, a threat to her tight-knit relationship with Bruce (in a straight rip, Dave drives what amounts to the dog van from Dumb and Dumber). And there's the comic relief of a hefty kid (Troy Gentile of Drillbit Taylor) who—because he's hefty—doesn't get the same action that svelte Dave does. The theme of the picture is family (Andi of Friday: "Don't you think he deserves a real home, with a real family?" Bruce: "But we are a real family"), and only the most hard-hearted won't feel a pull on this score. But really it's all about that supporting cast of oh-so-adorable mutts. Adults and kids alike will "ooh" and "aww" for the dogs, and kids will have their imaginations sparked by the only-in-the-movies Rube Goldbergian inventions of mechanically gifted Bruce (like a "Fetch" machine to keep the dogs entertained when no one's around).
It's hard to muster any vitriol for this amiable kid flick executive produced by the savvy Ivan Reitman— seen in the end credits with his own dogs. Though Hotel for Dogs is set in the generically named Central City (no, the Flash doesn't turn up) and is as generic as its title suggests, youngsters will pay no never-mind to the movie's lack of art; they'll simply be entertained by the mischevious kids and the scraggly, well-trained dog actors who upstage them at every turn.