Polygram has a brightly packaged family entertainment in the neatly titled “Paws,” an enjoyable doggy film that stands a good chance of holding its own against heavyweight competition for the young dollar and which should have a long video shelf life. The presence, albeit offscreen, of Scottish actor Billy Connolly, currently winning raves for “Mrs. Brown,” won’t do any harm. Pic is generally on the button for the pubescent crowd, presenting wholly believable teenage characters in conflict with a colorfully overdrawn villainess.
This Latent Image production doesn’t attempt the wondrously effective lip-synch animatronics of “Babe,” relying instead on old-fashioned mouthings from a well-trained canine called Forrest.
The plot is simplicity itself. Alex (Norman Kaye) knows the whereabouts of a stashed-away fortune of $ 1 million. The mysterious, bewigged and Euro-accented Anja (Sandy Gore) wants the loot. She dispatches the unfortunate Alex, but not before he’s transferred clues to the location of the cash onto a computer disk that he’s entrusted to his intelligent woofer, PC.
The pooch sets out to find his friend Susan (Caroline Gillmer), but before he reaches her suburban house, he’s hit by a car occupied by Stephen (Joe Petruzzi) , his wife, Amy (Rachel Blake), and Amy’s children, teenage Zac (Nathan Cavaleri) and moppet Binby (Freyja Meere). PC isn’t badly hurt, and the disk gets stashed with computer-mad Zac’s other floppies.
Turns out that Susan lives next door with her pretty 14-year-old daughter, Samantha (Emilie Francois), and soon the teens are bonding while the resourceful PC manages to give himself a voice via Zac’s computer (the explanation for this feat is resolutely unclear). Choosing a Scottish accent because “I always wanted to talk like Billy Connolly,” PC is now able to communicate with Zac.
Rest of pic centers on the efforts of PC and Zac to thwart the horrid Anja, a stiletto-wielding horror who may be too intensely frightening for very young viewers. Zac comes to appreciate his unemployed stepfather and cozies up to the sometimes compliant Samantha. The energetic slapstick climax unfolds on a dog-racing track, with the hiding place of the million quite cleverly revealed.
“Paws” takes more care than is usual for this kind of film to explore the relationships of its characters. Zac emerges, via Cavaleri’s excellent performance, as a believably tormented teen; the thesp, known in Australia as a talented musician who survived a bout of cancer, is terrifically good. Francois is equally valid as his pretty, vacillating neighbor.
Director Karl Zwicky, who started out making genuinely creepy low-budget horror films, does a solid job here, greatly aided by Geoff Burton’s bright camerawork, with its fresh use of Sydney locations. Special mention goes to the work of dog trainer Luke Hura.