Well and truly pipped at the post by the more inventive, witty and technically assured “Babe,” this 1994 co-production, which unsuccessfully played off in Japan several months ago (in a markedly different version), could entrance moppet audiences with its disarmingly naive tale of a lively golden retriever puppy who sets out across some spectacular Australian landscapes in search of his wild cousins. Artful use of a large variety of animals and sometimes breathtaking photography are undermined by formulaic plotting and some strident voicing. Classic cult status will elude this animal odyssey.
Under-10s may well be riveted by the adventures of the cuddly woofer, whose real name is Muffin but who prefers to be called Napoleon. Their parents and grandparents will find little of interest in the predictable goings-on, and a few arcane film-buff in-jokes are likely to pass way over the heads of most viewers.
Napoleon is first seen frolicking at a poolside birthday party (the children are the only humans seen in the film, apart from the back of the homeowner). The adventurous pooch clambers into a large basket to which several balloons are attached and is promptly whisked up and away, landing with a bump on the rocks of Sydney Harbor after a friendly galah (a kind of parrot) called Birdo Lucci (!) bursts the balloons.
Determined to find the Australian wild dogs, or dingoes, to whom he’s distantly related, Napoleon, guided by Birdo, sets off into the bush, and along the way encounters just about every animal known to exist in Australia. A testy koala nags him, lorikeets chatter, a motherly kangaroo (voiced by the Barry Humphries character Dame Edna Everage) gives him a ride in her pouch, and an angry frill-necked lizard hisses at him, as does a sinister snake.
The little dog wallows in deep snow and narrowly avoids a disastrous fire in sugar-cane fields before finally, in Australia’s ruggedly beautiful Red Centre, finding dingo puppies, Sid and Nancy, whom he saves from drowning when their cave is flooded. Throughout his journey, Napoleon is tracked by a vicious black cat (clever voicing here by Carole Skinner) who thinks he’s an overgrown mouse.
The adventures of this playful puppy and the wild, spectacular landscapes through which he travels are entrancing for a while, but are eventually diminished in this version by the voicing of Jamie Croft, whose aggressively male teenage shtick and almost nonstop narration become grating after a very short while. Philip Quast’s Birdo, Humphries’ Kangaroo and David Argue’s testy Frill-Necked Lizard are on the button.
Technically, the success of “Babe” in convincingly depicting animals that talk has left “Napoleon” far behind; the occasional attempt is made to match a voice with jaw movements, but on the whole the filmmakers here have confined themselves to the most rudimentary “lip synching.”
Production values are top-drawer, and Adelaide-based filmmaker Mario Andreacchio, better known for his action films, has done the best possible job given the concept and resources. Main kudos here are reserved for the skilled animal trainers, and for the sterling work of cinematographer Roger Dowling. Bill Conti’s music score is lively, but a couple of songs add little to the proceedings.