An affable, independent-minded kelpie unites a small community in the Pilbara region of Western Australia during the 1970s in “Red Dog.” Adapted from a book by Louis de Bernieres (author of “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”) that was inspired by local legend, the simple, broadly comic tale from Oz helmer Kriv Stenders harks back to the values (production and otherwise) of an earlier era. Slated as an Easter release Down Under, this family friendly pic is most likely to travel in ancillary.
Structured as a series of flashbacks within a framing story, the narrative begins as trucker Tom (Luke Ford) arrives in the rough mining town of Dampier, a place with few women and many eccentrics, and discovers a close-knit group of locals in the pub keeping vigil for a dying dog. Publican Jack (Noah Taylor), miners Peeto (John Batchelor), Vanno (Arthur Angel) and Jocko (Rohan Nichol), and pert secretary Nancy (Rachael Taylor) take turns recounting to the newcomer why this particular canine is the most celebrated in Australia.
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Justly famous for his foul smelling farts, hefty appetite and habit of hitching a ride in all manner of vehicles, Red Dog (Koko) is friendly to all and the property of none — that is, until he fixates on Yank bus driver John (Josh Lucas). But even after he becomes a one-man dog, he still manages to facilitate Vanno’s marriage and save the melancholy Jocko from becoming shark meat.
Evoking a bygone world full of burly, hairy workingmen in short shorts and singlets toiling amid appallingly lax safety standards, the pic’s visuals are its strongest suit, and owe plenty to the unique outback locations, period production design and costumes. Indeed, much of the frequently crude humor is visual too.
Less strong, however, is the screenplay penned by L.A.-based Daniel Taplitz (who has mostly telepics to his credit) and helmer Stenders’ direction. The action unfolding in the recalled vignettes has a flat, generic feel that is especially cliched when depicting the romance of John and Nancy.
Given the cartoonish nature of the human characters, the theme of time passing and never forgetting the one that you loved doesn’t carry as much weight here as it did in Lasse Hallstrom’s doggy tale “Hachi” or Disney dramas of yore such as “The Incredible Journey” or “Old Yeller.” That it doesn’t is no fault of Koko’s, the remarkably expressive two-year-old red cloud kelpie (a breed native to Australia) playing Red Dog.