Film Review: ‘The Champions’

Courtesy of DOC NYC

Pit bulls rescued from disgraced NFL star Michael Vicks' illegal dog-fighting operation are spotlit in this polished advocacy doc.

Nine years ago, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was indicted on federal felony charges of running a multi-state dog-fighting network whose cruelty extended to the executions (by hanging, drowning, electrocution, etc.) of “losing” dogs. But what happened to the 50 or so surviving canines found in deplorable conditions at his rural Virginia property? That question is answered at length in Darcy Dennett’s “The Champions,” a case-pleading documentary that argues that pit bulls are a dangerous breed only when deliberately abused. Dog fanciers and animal-rights advocates should take to this polished feature, primarily via home formats. FilmRise acquired worldwide rights last November, with digital, DVD and Blu-ray releases planned.

Soon after serving less than two years in prison, Vick was back on top thanks to lucrative new NFL and endorsement contracts, becoming a multimillionaire once again despite all prior criminal charges and bankruptcies. If things had similarly followed precedent for his erstwhile animal charges, however, they would have gotten no second chance: It is standard practice to destroy dogs rescued from such circumstances, as they’re considered too unstable to be adopted. Even PETA and the Humane Society of the U.S. recommended the whole lot be put down.

But the high-profile case provoked strong blowback from pit-bull defenders who argued that like German Shepherds (whose public image was rehabilitated by movie star Rin Tin Tin), Dobermans and Rottweilers before them, they’re designated as our era’s “bad dogs” simply because they’ve been singled out for ill treatment and training by bad owners. (’Twas not always so: Pits once had their own beloved film star in the “Our Gang” comedies’ ring-eyed Pete the Pup.) Several studies have shown that breed is not an innate factor in a dog’s inclination to bite or not. But the vogue for using pits as attack or guard dogs has typed them, to the point where some jurisdictions in the U.S. and beyond have passed “breed discrimination bills” specifically banning pit bulls as a potential vicious hazard. That “bad rap” (also the acronym of the prominent advocacy org Bay Area Dog-lovers Responsible About Pit-bulls) has further made them difficult for animal shelters to adopt out.

Fans insist they are in fact a loyal, social breed whose instances of hostile behavior can invariably be traced to owner misdeeds. Spared a death sentence after grassroots campaigning, some of the dogs from Vicks’ compound remained too traumatized to live outside specially dedicated animal sanctuaries. But others we see go on to thrive, whether making friends with the family cat, amiably tolerating pokes from the new baby, or visiting children’s hospital patients as an official therapy dog. They achieve such happy endings despite having started out physically and/or psychologically scarred from their fighting-ring ordeals, with zero formative memory of positive human interactions and a cringing terror of anything unfamiliar, from staircases to household appliance noises.

The five dogs spotlit here are winning personalities indeed, although “The Champions” could have done more to provide a thorough context on breed-specific abuses rather than simply serving up 90-odd minutes of heartwarming rehabilitation scenarios. There’s not much narrative drive on tap, and apart from occasionally returning to the subject of designated villain Vicks (who, as portrayed here, seems none too remorseful), we learn little about just how widespread dogfighting is today. Still, you’d have to be immune to canine charm not to be sufficiently entertained by the antics of the lucky dogs Dennett gives major screentime to.

Attractively shot and otherwise assembled with straightforward professionalism, “The Champions” is unabashedly an advocacy doc, but one that never gets too preachy or polemical. It should have a long life as an educational and fundraising resource for likeminded organizations.

Film Review: 'The Champions'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Feb. 10, 2016. (In Santa Barbara Film Festival; 2015 Hamptons, DOC NYC film festivals.) Running time: 93 MIN.


(Documentary) A Fireflyfilmworks presentation. Produced by Darcy Dennett. Executive producers, Dennett, Elissa Jones, David Backes, Kelly Backes, Dana Edwards. Co-producer, Lindsay Rothenberg.


Directed by Darcy Dennett. Camera (color, HD), Justin Hanrahan; editor, Julio F. Lastres; music, Jeff Beal; sound, Spence Palermo, Nejc Poberaj, Roy Marasigan; re-recording mixer, David Wilson.


Susan Weidel, Rebecca J. Huss, Donna Reynolds, Tim Racer, Nicole Rattay, Steve Smith, Cris Cohen, Jennifer Long, Francis Battista, Michelle Weaver, John Garcia.

Filed Under:

Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 22

Leave a Reply


Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

  1. Jacquie Van Sickle says:

    Loved this beautifully told heartwarming story, one that is important to be told and shared. Kudos to FireFlyFilmworks for telling this story. Well deserved Awards!

  2. I just watched this movie and was enthralled and moved by all of the stories spotlighted in the movie. The more I learn about pit bulls the more I love them! This movie was enjoyable and educational at the same time. It showed success stories…. We the public needed to see the focus on success, rather than the trauma and abuses that go on all the time. It has moved me to call and volunteer tomorrow! I have showed, trained & bred Akitas. Now, that breed is not dog friendly. The pit bull is in my opinion a much safer dog in general. I always look at the Owner and blame them 96% of the time for bad behavior. All animals just want love & want to be loved. I always feel each animal is unique and should be assessed on its own merits. When we typecast a breed, we lose out on re-homing the majority of the great dogs available for adoption. Given time, most dogs with issues would be suitable for adoption. When we don’t invest in these poor animals that are victims themselves; we lose our humanity. Love and patience always triumphs. We just need to open our hearts and our pocketbooks and donate our time….to see just how much these dogs have to offer! Nothing ventured/nothing gained.

  3. Mila Duncan says:

    This film is clearly an effective PR piece, as the reviewer appears to have accepted every claim as fact. It is not a documentary, any more than a television commercial for Tide is a documentary about laundry detergent. The reviewer accurately sums it up as an advocacy film. I wish he’d been a little stronger about the limitations of that genre, as there have been many deaths – very violent, brutal deaths – caused by pit bulls, the product being advocated here. If this were an advocacy film for another consumer product, would the reviewer have been quite so inclined to be lenient about the nature of advocacy films? For instance, if this were a well-done, sleekly polished NRA-funded film about the beauty of weapons and the misunderstood nature of guns, would the ethics and morality of their position, and the victims of their products, be left out of the review?

    Re: the “canine hate” comment – many people who are strongly pro-BSL are dog owners, and many are pro-BSL because of a pit bull that mauled our beloved dogs. We wish to limit pit bulls because they attack more frequently and more devastatingly than any other dog breed or variety – and these attacks are often directed at dogs.

  4. Mandi says:

    There have been so many studies about the inaccuracy of visual breed identification. Many dogs probably have bully breed features without an ounce of bully breed genes. An old study I recently came across showed bully-looking dogs whose parents were a pure cocker spaniel and another purebred, non-bully dog. Most of the participants in that study guessed the breed incorrectly. The only accurate way when one can’t trace the lineage through the parents is through DNA testing, which I seriously doubt was ever performed in the vast majority of bite cases. Often, the reports in the media and even certain infamously biased Internet sites rely on eye witnesses’ and lay persons’ descriptions of the animal involved. They are very likely inaccurate regarding the breed of the dog in most cases.

    While I applaud this film for showing these happy endings, there should be more discussion about BSL and dog fighting issues. Communities that have repealed BSL policies have NOT experienced a rise in bite cases. BSL has been proven to be ineffective and pointless in so many instances.

    Also, any true dog lover is supportive of legislation against backyard breeders and puppy mills for ALL breeds. Over breeding is not just affecting pits. Chihuahuas, for example, became really popular in recent years and they are being over bred as well. But you don’t hear anti-bully breed people mention that, do you? No because they have focused their energy on promoting their hateful views and eradicating the bully breed.

    Yes, there are bad people who train dogs to rip each other apart. Maybe there are also some dogs who just don’t like other dogs. I had such a dog growing up, and, no, he wasn’t a pitbull or pitbull mix. We kept him secured so that he couldn’t get out of the yard and go after any other dog. He was NEVER people aggressive, just towards other dogs. Not sure why, we certainly didn’t train him that way and we tried to socialize him at a young age but we were unsuccessful. So we did what other responsible dog owners do all the time and prevented any situation that could result in injury to another dog, or any other living thing. (FYI, our dog also loved our cats; he had no aggression towards anything but other male dogs, and not even ALL male dogs at that.)

    There is no acceptable generalization mentioned in any of the comments above. “Bully lovers” are not all only concerned about themselves. I know, I am one I guess. I care about all animals and people. I am a happy mother to a loving, sweet, DOG-LOVING pitbull mix. He was attacked by this shaggy little dog one day who ran up to us and bit my dog’s leg. My boy did nothing, just sniffed at it and walked calmly away with me. (Certainly a dog that is a “game-insane dog killer” would have ripped that little dog to shreds.) I have seen dogs of all breeds act aggressively to other dogs, animals or people, so I am by no means naive. I prevent such an occurrence from happening again by being more cautious about allowing even small dogs to come too close without a proper introduction. Not because I think my dog will injure the other, but because I don’t know the other dog’s temperament.

    There are undoubtedly some people who use these dogs as status symbols and who really shouldn’t have any animal in their care. But then again, there are Pomeraninan “lovers” who are just as selfish and don’t deserve the companionship a good dog brings. Dogs are not all vicious. Pitbull and bully mixes are not all aggressive. Any untrained animal can be dangerous, even trained pets have done things that truly surprised their owners. There was a story about a golden retreiver or lab, for example, whose owner was fighting to get his dog back after he was confiscated and scheduled to be put down for killing a duck that happened to show up in his territory. It’s just up to the media to decide which attacks they will share and hype up. Labeling pits as more dangerous because their attacks are more deadly is nonsense that I won’t believe until every dog in a bite case has its DNA tested. When they all come back with bully genes, then we can talk. But I don’t believe that will ever happen. Not the testing, and not those results. And even if most turned out to be bullies genetically, I would still refuse to label this an all-around bad breed. I have known too many bully breed dogs that lived good lives, never injuring anyone or anything, to buy into such BS. And then there are always the millions of bully dogs who live with the same family day after day until they cross the rainbow bridge, that never harm another living being.

    And as for the asinine theory that all those bully breeds sitting in shelters right now are there because the former owner discovered some hidden danger all of a sudden, maybe you should volunteer at a shelter. See the often tearful goodbyes when a person is forced to give up a pet due to their landlord changing his mind about a dog, or because they lost their home, etc. See the love and pain in those eyes and then maybe you can see just how wrong you are there. Unfortunately, a great number of dogs are found as strays. If they were really dangerous, wouldn’t they have been brought in for having attacked someone, rather than just because someone saw them all alone and called animal control? Most of the dogs in shelters and elsewhere being called “bully breeds” are most likely mutts, anyway, and probably contain surprising genes considering their physical features. That is why guessing at a dog’s breed by looks alone is a bad idea. And it’s also why judging a dog based on looks, or breed, alone is wrong. Animals are very individualistic. They each have their own personalities, their own quirks.

    I could go on for days. But I’ll stop right here. Let the hate fest begin. SMH.

    • Megan says:

      Thank goodness for you comment, because after the one i read above yours i was starting to become irritated with the negativity in her comment. I absolutely agree with everything you just said and how eloquently it was stated. Well done Mandi!!

  5. Debbie Bell says:

    Some believe that bully people care more about bully dogs then they do about humans.

    Wrong! Bully people care about neither.

    Bully people care about self, ego, and their ability to acquire, breed and monger the dog of their choice. Period.

    No one who truly cares about their favorite dog wants their dog to become popular, as popularity leads to disproportionate abuse, neglect, abandonment, homelessness, death.
    But bully people do not care!

    When bully people get all noisy about a particular gripper dog situation (Mickey, Lennox) here or there, it’s not because they care about dogs, it’s because they love to fight.

    Before pit bull Mickey attacked a child who came within reach, he had killed a puppy who came within reach. Does that puppy’s death concern bully people? Absolutely not.

    Bully people do not care if dogs die horrific deaths. Sane compassionate people don’t want more dogs born with dog aggression instinct.
    Bully people do want more dog aggressive dogs to be produced.

    If they cared about pit/bully dog welfare, they would do something to reduce the pit bull/bully dog crisis. They would enact severe breeding restrictions to reduce the overpopulation that results in overflowing pounds and overflowing dumpsters of dead bully dogs.

    They would try to have fewer bully dogs suffering horrific neglect and abuse but they do the opposite. They monger bully dogs to all. “Get your free pit bull now!”

    The defense of breeding more dog-killing expert dogs means the bully people believe that each pit bull dog victim is “just a dog.”

    They attempt to “defend” (monger) their bully dogs saying, ” my dog wasn’t created to wantonly kill humans, it was created to wantonly kill your dogs”

    If they actually cared about dogs they would oppose the continued breeding of THE best dog-killing dogs. This is the only way to truly reduce dog fighting.

    Instead, look at what they cause. By mongering pits, they have created the bully dog crisis.

    In every community, the gullible public buys pit puppies, only to realize as it matures they do not want to live with an expert dog- killer. So they try to get rid of it. The rescues are all full of unwanted surplus pits, so they can’t take that beautiful but efficient killer. So they spread the word that they must get rid of a lovely pit bull. “Not good with dogs” they warn.

    Who needs these dogs?
    Dog fighters do.

    We’ve heard of puppy raisers for the guide dog programs. Well, all over the country people are puppy raisers for dog fighters. The dog men get the good game-insane pits as they “start” or “turn on”, without wasting all that time and money raising pups.

    Oh they know to mention how much they hate Vick, and that’ll reassure the puppy raiser that their dog is going to a good home. And if their dog is really good at killing other dogs, he won’t even show wounds or scars after he’s fought!

    Most bully dogs aren’t pets, they are weapons, anti theft devices, status symbols, owned for breeding income, for fighting, and for the vicarious power, virility, and aggression they provide their owners.

    These dogs will never be sterilized until it is made mandatory and enforced.

    The pit mongers tell the public that pit bulls may be acceptable pets if they are raised and managed perfectly, and the public buys puppies, instead of adopting an adult.

    When their pit bull matures and kills a victim dog, and the pit owners become truly pitbull aware, they decide they no longer want to own the best dog- killing dog, and their pibble joins the other million surplus bullies waiting to be killed or to die fighting, thanks to bully dog mongers.

    Bully dogs are breeding and dying like flies. Even with free bully sterilization, most large municipal pounds are overflowing with pits and their cousins..

    Dog fights, the fights arranged between coworkers, neighbors, family, friends, and enemies, are impossible to stop.

    Bully people never offer the slightest mention about how to prevent invasion attacks, where pits and other bullies leave their home territory to attack and kill in public property, and invade the yards, vehicles and homes of their victims. Bully people truly do not care.

    There is no way to be safe with attack-silently-from-behind pits in the neighborhood.

    And the bully people know this but do not care!

    These off-territory attacks are unique to bully dogs. Before bully pollution, severe or fatal attacks on victim dogs or humans essentially never occurred away from home. Never.

    Read bully people’s posts.
    “I’m fine. I only care about self. I don’t care about others, not pits/bully dogs, not the victims, no one else! So don’t change anything.”

  6. Debbie Bell says:

    Please post how a non bully dog can be protected when good game insane pits pollute the community?

    Even keeping a small dog strictly inside won’t stop a game insane pit, out on its seek and destroy a dog mission, from crashing past a human who is trying to exit or enter her own home.

    Read about the Christmas day attack by an excellent pair of pibbles, as they entered the home of Robin Elgie. In bully free communities, invasion attacks never occur.

    Yes I HATE unprovoked prolonged dog on dog aggression, when that means no other species is safe.

    • Megan says:

      Do you have common sense or no? Wait of course you do not, based on your ridiculous comment stated above. And also the small dogs bite as well but you anti pitbulls do not believe because only the bullies attack right….. smh,check your facts before spewing your hate on the bully breeds which clearly you know absolutely nothing about. All of the anti bully folks, your all the same close minded and so set in your ways how embarassing….. and oh so dramatic.

    • Elizabeth S. says:

      The dogs who attacked Robin Elgie were NOT pit bulls. They were American bulldogs…a completely different breed.

      • janice says:

        German Shepherds and many other breeds can be just as dangerous as any other. If any time Pitt bites it makes major news, all other attacks and bites are ignored. I have owned 2 and neither ever even tried to attack a person. Responsible ownership and laws to limit breeding for profit would go a long way as a solution to the problem. A tiny dog is the only dog bite I’ve ever actually witnessed, many of them to children and even myself. I’ll take a Pitt any day over a little biter.

      • Mila Duncan says:

        The term “pit bull” describes a type of dog, not a single breed. Both the American Pit Bull Terrier and the American Bulldog are pit bulls. For one, they are clearly of the same physical type. For another, the American Bulldog was created in the 1970s by a pit bull breeder who used his pits as foundation stock. He then claimed they were really true-bred descendants of a 200-year-old southern farm dog, but this is pure fantasy.

  7. Debbie Bell says:

    Of course, there’s no mention of the victim dogs, dismembered and disemboweled, crushed and killed daily by game insane pits.

    It’s impossible to be educated, have compassion for all dogs, and monger bully dogs at the same time.

    Remember, when pits kill their victim dogs, well, it was “just a dog…”

  8. Mia Johnson says:

    It is shocking how many myths are presented in this one short review. Does the writer not understand that pit bull attacks have increased 830% in North America in 7 years?! 25 children have already been attacked or killed by pit bulls in 2016. The story of Vick’s dogs may be interesting in itself, but does not prove aggression can be trained out of pit bulls by calling them “loving family dogs”. This is a very dangerous and misleading film. 99% of pit bulls in shelters come from an unknown background and there are usually good reasons they were turned in. For National Pit Bull Victim Awareness, a coalition of more than 60 groups seeking an end to the ongoing deaths and attacks by pit bulls.

  9. Pit bulls are the only dog that needs a grassroots AND corporate PR campaign to keep telling us, over and over, that they don’t inflict more crippling, disfiguring and fatal injuries than all other dogs combined, twice over. In the first month of 2016, pit bulls killed lt least one person per week and maimed/disfigured many more. It used to be almost-unheard of for a dog to kill a human. Now, it’s a regular occurrence. This documentary, like the endless galleries of pit bulls in tutus and flower crows, shows how dedicated pit proponents are in getting us to accept weekly killings as the new normal.

    • miaj27 says:

      That is so true Marty. It is shocking how much work and money goes in to promoting these dogs. Yet despite all these efforts, only one out of 600 pit bulls ever finds a home. There is no amount of adoption that will alleviate the current crisis. More than one million surplus pit bull type dogs are euthanized at shelters in the US every year. How much euthanization will it take before people understand something else needs to be done?? All this promotion only exacerbates the problem.

  10. Hi, I work at The Humane Society of the United States, and wanted to add that we changed our policy on dogs seized from fighting cases in 2009. Since then, we have created a Dogfighting Rescue Coalition, and through collaboration with members of the coalition, many dogs rescued from dogfighting have been rehomed. I was fortunate enough to foster one in 2009 from a case involving more than 200 dogs, and he found a wonderful home, and was really a great dog, and his story is one of many. I hope more people will open their homes and hearts to animals from these sorts of cases.

  11. carolyn lathrop says:

    I am guessing that one of “The Campions” featured was NOT Tug, the Vick pit bull who, after months and months,of “rehabilitation” at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, nonetheless broke out of his enclosure, broke into an enclosure containing another pit bull and killed him. He then seriously injured another Vick pit bull. The reality is that pit bulls have been selectively bred for the temperament flaw of dog aggression for well over a hundred years. It is genetic in them, and (as both the ukc and adba pit bull standards admit) most pit bulls have this temperament flaw. It is NOT “all in how you raise ’em” anymore than herding behaviors in border collies or retrieving drive in labradors are the product of training. If the experts at Best Friends couldn’t contain one of Vick pit bulls safely, (much less “rehabilitate” him) do you really trust your clueless neighbor to be able to.

  12. My review of Variety’s review: Variety has placed itself amongst the minority crowd who would have you believe that pit bulls, even those rescued from dog fighting operations, make wonderful pets. Variety, before posting such a view in the future, please at least seek truthful information regarding the “bull and terrier” combo breeds. THOUSANDS of victims of pit bull attacks YEARLY in the USA….people, pet dogs, pet cats, horses, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, llamas, deer and other assorted domestic and wildlife animals will thank you. As a pundit once wisely stated, “It is better to remain silent and be thought to be ignorant than to speak and remove all doubt.”

    • Minority? Don’t think so. But as for your last sentence, you have indeed removed all doubt. How do you feel about domestic violence? That’s good for you right?

    • The minority? PMSL! You should just hush, Mary Ann.

    • There are millions of pitbulls lounging on their families couches at this moment, loving them, comforting and entertaining them with their silly grins. It would seem they have overcome the genetics, which is only logical as most are a result of accidental breeding, making them mutts.

    • Jayce Toalle says:

      There will be negative reviews of this excellent documentary from the canine hate/pro bsl group due to the subject matter. Their sole agenda is eradication of any canine displaying large block heads. This group presents dangerous misinformation and disinformation to an unaware public, promoting their opinions as fact.

More Film News from Variety