“Sergeant Pepper” is a sweet but formulaic family film that may appeal to kids even as discerning adults find its plot trajectory telegraphed from the opening frames. The story of a boy and a talking dog, a coupla’ hoodlums chasing loot, and a family needing a home, pic milks every family movie cliche. While it does seem to transcend nationalities, there’s not an enormous precedent for foreign lingo live-action family films doing huge biz Stateside — “Red Balloon” (sans dialogue) and “Pippi Longstocking”(dubbed from Swedish) notwithstanding. Watch for healthy business in German-speaking countries and throughout Europe.
German helmer Sandra Nettelbeck previously made the internationally successful food-themed romantic comedy “Mostly Martha.” She changes genres here, but she continues to fare better when she embraces her tendency for whimsy and lightness and doesn’t yield to clunky cliches of any genre.
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Adorable, blond, and as stubborn as most 6-year-olds, Felix Singer (Neal Thomas) has an active imaginary life: He insists he can talk to his toys, has no friends and defiantly wears a Tigger costume daily. Worried, his musician mother Anna (Johanna ter Steege) arranges for him to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Theobald (August Zirner), but his dad Johnny (Ulrich Thomsen) is more preoccupied with crafting wild inventions he hopes will make the family rich. But when Johnny’s snowmaking machine goes berserk, the Singers’ landlord threatens to evict the family.
By conveniently happy coincidence, a Benji-like mutt named Sergeant Pepper has inherited the palatial estate of his late owner Gregor von Gordenthal (John Franklyn-Robbins), with the provision he is to be raised by a family with children. Gregor’s grown but childless kids Corinna (Barbara Auer) and Simon (Oliver Broumis), none too happy about the terms of the will, promptly set out to give Pepper a powder.
Narrowly escaping his would-be assailants, Pepper finds his way to Felix, who listens earnestly as the dog explains his story. Boy and dog bond right away; Felix finally has a real (albeit four-legged) friend, and Pepper appears to have found a prospective home with a new family.
That would hardly fill a feature-length film, so Nettelbeck throws in a few story curveballs torn from the playbook of various kids/mutts-in-jeopardy films ranging from “Home Alone” to “101 Dalmatians.” As Simon and Corinna chase Pepper, Felix and his sister Felicia, it’s a race against time to see if the kids’ parents will get there before the bad guys. Sound familiar?
Ridiculous denouement seems designed only to extend the movie by 10 minutes. While the holes in the script are big enough to drive a paddy wagon through, they probably won’t bother younger viewers.
More appealing and memorable enough to enchant grownups, however, are the whimsically creative scenes involving Johnny’s inventions (a robot that picks up after the children!) and a couple of disarmingly funny bits with Felix and Dr. Theobald. Nettelbeck certainly has a creative flair, and she’s within striking range of something good as long as she sticks to pursuing her original ideas.