The makers of “Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero” could hardly have asked for better timing: Their computer-animated feature about the real-life adventures of an improbably plucky canine on the battlefields of World War I has arrived not long after “Wonder Woman” introduced many young viewers (and, very likely, quite a few older viewers) to the specifics of what was billed — inaccurately, alas — as the War to End All Wars. As a result, director Richard Lanni’s family-friendly yet persuasively detailed movie should come across to a sizable chunk of its target audience as something appreciably more immediate than a period piece set a century ago. Better still, the film is sufficiently intelligent and entertaining to engage most grown-ups and, no kidding, fascinate history buffs.
This is the stranger-than-fiction story of a scruffy stray Boston terrier who bonds with novice solider Robert Conroy (voiced by Logan Lerman) during the latter’s basic training in Connecticut, and manages to follow his human friend aboard a France-bound troop ship. Once they arrive at the Western Front, Stubby repeatedly impresses Conroy and other comrades-in-arms with his uncommon valor, distinguishing himself by uncovering soldiers buried by trench collapses, warning troops and civilians about poison gas attacks, and risking death to locate a wounded (human) friend while under fire from the “Bosch” (i.e., German soldiers).
At one point, Stubby actually calls attention to a German spy — an act of heroism that leads to his being commissioned as an honorary sergeant. Hard to believe? Stick around for the closing credits, and you’ll see actual photos of the celebrated mutt who became the official mascot of the 102nd Infantry Regiment and the most decorated war dog in U.S. military history.
Lanni and co-scriptwriter Mike Stokey II wisely avoid the temptation to make Stubby unduly anthropomorphic; neither he nor any other animal in the film can speak, wink or indicate anything other than, well, animal instincts. (One notable exception: Stubby learns how to salute, and it serves him well.) Indeed, despite the stylized appearance of the human characters in the bland but serviceable animation, there is a distinct air of realism throughout “Sgt. Stubby” that often enhances the suspense, especially in the thrilling sequence that has Stubby racing to alert French civilians as a cloud of mustard gas wafts into their village.
Don’t misunderstand: We’re not talking about the cartoon version of “Saving Private Ryan” here. The only time we get a close look at a casualty is when Stubby nabs a rabbit for dinner — and even here, the kill occurs off-screen. Still, “Sgt. Stubby” doesn’t shy away from indicating the mortal stakes of the perilous situations in which Stubby, Conroy and other soldiers find themselves. This is especially true when we witness the tragic consequences of a final battle in the waning hours of the war.
Gerard Depardieu provides some welcome moments of comic relief as the voice of Gaston Baptiste, a hearty French soldier who establishes a “Three Musketeers”-style camaraderie with Stubby and Conroy while on reconnaissance missions. Beyond his character’s bonhomie, however, he also conveys a battle-weary seriousness and melancholy. The other vocal talents are creditable — Helena Bonham Carter provides voiceover narration as Conroy’s off-screen sister — but Depardieu goes one step further: He makes you wish you could hear and see him as Gaston in a live-action movie. Teamed with Wonder Woman, perhaps?