A loyal Akita demonstrates the meaning of unconditional love in Lasse Hallstrom’s simple tearjerker “Hachi: A Dog’s Story.” Sentimental, repetitive tale of a university professor (Richard Gere, also producing) losing his heart to a lost puppy harks back to the values, production and otherwise, of an earlier era. No “Marley and Me,” despite a few comic setpieces, pic faces a marketing challenge due to its retro feel and relative dullness. It’s family-friendly rather than family fare; kids are likely to be bored stiff. Ancillary will probably draw the biggest numbers.
Inspired by real events that occurred in 1920s Japan, as well as the 1987 Nipponese blockbuster “Hachiko monogatari” directed by Seijiro Koyama, the problematic script by Stephen P. Lindsay transposes the action to a small New England town in the 1990s. His imaginary burg of Bedridge (here repped by Rhode Island’s Woonsocket and Bristol) is an idyllic bedroom suburb full of friendly tradespeople, apparently without a leash law and with no dog catcher in sight.
A 2007-set framing story starts with 11-year-old Ronnie (Kevin Decoste) telling his class why his grandfather’s dog Hachi embodies heroism. Pic segues to the cold winter night when Parker Wilson (Gere) finds the pooch (played by extremely cute but continuity-confusing Shiba Inu puppies of different sizes) on the local train platform. It’s love at first sight.
Sure that someone will claim the animal, Parker hauls it to the large home he shares with wife Cate (Joan Allen). She’s ultimately persuaded that the rambunctious pup should stay when she sees her hubby on his hands and knees as he models the art of fetching. The dog gets his name when Parker’s Japanese colleague Ken (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) translates the tag on its collar as Hachi, the Japanese word for “eight.”
After an unidentified length of time passes, Hachi appears fully grown (now played by three regally expressive Akitas) and a bit more obedient. He accompanies Parker to the train station and returns again to escort him home every day. The town’s many commuters, as well as station ticket agent Carl (Jason Alexander) and hot-dog vendor Jasjeet (Erick Avari), regularly witness the pair’s mutual affection.
When the day comes that Parker doesn’t get off the train, Hachi is unable to process the notion that his master will not return. For 10 years, progressively more broken in body, he stands vigil at the station, his fidelity inspiring newspaper celebrity and subsequent donations for his care.
If audience reaction at the screening caught is any indication, the theme of time passing and never forgetting the one you loved is most likely to resonate with older viewers. Even so, the dog’s silent distress and dignity will move all but the hardest hearts.
Pic’s main problem is that its human story lacks drama; Hachi’s the central attraction. As thesps who advise their colleagues never to work with dogs realize, it’s hard to compete with these natural scene-stealers. Every one of the canines here evinces such sensitivity and charisma that the filmmakers felt obliged to run a disclaimer stressing that Akitas are not suited to casual pet owners.
Although Geregets points for being licked and jumped on and even sharing the bathtub with a dog, Parker isn’t one of his most memorable roles. Indeed, all of the characters suffer from being defined almost solely by their relationship to the dog: Allen is almost wasted as the understanding wife forced to share her hubby’s caresses. A scene near the end does allow her to show some real emotion, but even then it’s buried in a dog pelt.
Hallstrom, worlds away from the sharp observations of “My Life as a Dog,” seems overly comfortable in the rut of sentimental comic dramas he’s fallen into. Although he mostly avoids the maudlin, he does offer up some irritating doggie-cam moments, a sepia vision of the world through Hachi’s eyes that doesn’t serve any real purpose except to generate a cheap laugh or an “aww.”
Tech credits are fine apart from the overuse of Jan A.P. Kaczmarek’s lachrymose score.