There’s no easy way to digest the hard facts at the heart of director Kenny Roy’s “Chance.” From the very first moments, this animated feature about a peaceable pit bull born into dogfighting tells the audience that it will be difficult to avert their eyes from this horror any longer. While the film’s animal activism is valuable for promoting tighter laws and increased penalties for this barbaric crime, and the filmmakers’ hearts are assuredly in the right place, the manner in which they execute their vision doesn’t exactly inspire. Animation is perhaps the most powerful way to illustrate dogfighting from a dog’s point of view, but the unrelentingly dark and violent approach to the subject matter is too brutal, bleak and occasionally bloody. If viewers are turned off, the film may only be preaching to the choir.
Opening on a sobering statistic about the hundreds of thousands of dogs killed in organized dogfights worldwide establishes that this isn’t going to be a warm, fuzzy, inspirational tale about dogs. The world Roy and screenwriter Kenny Young build is replete with talking dogs with their own coded language (the dogs call themselves “hatonas”) and humans who sound like the adults in a Peanuts cartoon. In their reality, dogs are not companions worthy of love but a commodity used to make money off a vile sport. Their story is shown through the eyes of Chance (voiced by Elijah Uribe as a youth and Will Cannon as an adult), a brown-and-white pit bull. The kind-eyed, sweet-faced pup has an imaginative, inquisitive mind; he stands out among his litter mates as he questions his mom about their lives, their beliefs, and their creator, referred to as “Asani.”
However, Chance’s carefree days are short-lived, as he’s ripped from his mom’s clutches and sold into the custody of a cruel human — a “krot.” Forced to live among meaner, older dogs in a dustbowl backyard where fighting is mandatory, our puppy protagonist is neglected, abused, and starved for food and proper care. He’s a dreamer caught in a nightmare.
Hope finds its way to Chance in the form of a friendship with pit bull puppies Sugar (voiced by Simone Baker as a youth and Pepper Chambers as an adult) and Hannibal (voiced by Cassius Devan as a youth and Eddie Goines as an adult). Not only do they advise him on survival and fighting techniques in that underworld, but they help reinforce his faith that he’s destined for something greater than being a ruthless killing machine. But their unshakable bond is tested when their tenuous situation changes overnight.
Unfortunately, the characters aren’t unique. They’re plopped into predictable sequences that are easy to empathize with but don’t lead to anything genuinely impacting or impressive. Tonal changes happen in whiplash fashion. The first montage, where they transition from puppies into adults, shifts from a childhood sense of play directly to a jarring scene of a krot cropping Chance’s floppy ears, then back to lighthearted fun. Also, contrivance rears its frustrating head in the second act, when Chance hesitates on his escape plan.
Moments of lightness pepper the picture in an attempt to balance out Chance’s punishing existence. There’s an homage to “Rocky” in the second of three training montages. Influences of “Spartacus” and “Gladiator” reverberate in the narrative as Chance inspires his peers to rebel against the krots. The sound design team even has some fun, properly utilizing the Wilhelm scream.
Since the animation style echoes machinima, akin to the aesthetics of a video game, there’s a hefty dose of uncanny valley. Yet there’s still a modicum of depth and dimension to the scenery, even if those backgrounds are composed of dirt, rubble, gray fences, and cement walls. The blue sky, clouds, and flourishing green tree in the trio’s yard add a pop of color, representing the freedom, hope, and happiness Chance dreams of attaining. There’s lens flare on his eyes in the spotlight of the ring. Dust dances in the light shining down on him when hearing of the joyful place called “Haven,” where hatonas live in peace and happiness.
Despite faith being a hulking thematic presence, and chatter about an all-great creator and magical place with a name one letter off from heaven, this isn’t a faith-based film. The dogs curse too often for that to be the case. There’s also not-so-wholesome content that wouldn’t fly in that genre, such as when Sugar wants to set Hannibal up with a female “to relax,” or when a jealous white dog in heat is rejected by Chance and calls Sugar “another bitch.” Technically, that’s the correct term when talking about a female dog. But its intention is meant more as a derogatory slur than a nod to zoological correctness.
Roy and Young ramp up the intensity of the fights. In the first, when Chance is a passive spectator, sound design is given as much heft as the visuals. The screaming humans egg on their champions and the contenders helplessly yelp as the agony of defeat fills the air. Later, when Chance is forced to participate, the almost feral dogs growl and lunge at each other in the ring. Blood mattes the fur of a few of the fighters. There are scratches and scars on their faces and bodies.
Portraying violence against animals from the animals’ perspective is a tricky proposition, requiring care and craft to get the message across without repulsing the audience. “Bambi” perhaps did it best, but “Chance” is on the opposite end of the spectrum in both overall tone and filmmaking skill. Though the message here is one everyone should hear, clichéd characters and a dark, derivative dirge of a story end up feeling more manipulative than motivational.