In a world constantly thirsting for wholesome dog-centric content, the hook of director Daniel Ferguson’s “Superpower Dogs” is an insanely catchy one. Running a museum- and science-center-friendly 47 minutes, this Imax original documentary spotlights six dogs in four different countries who’ve all been called upon to save lives under ordinary and extraordinary circumstances. This spectacular showcase for these exceptional canines is crafted as if they are superheroes in their own epic adventures, replete with credit sequences written in comic-book font, an emphatic score and slow-motion hero shots of the dogs looking formidable in action.
The main narrative track focuses on Dutch Shepard Halo, the runt of her litter, as she’s selected as a puppy from a breeder by (ironically-named) Capt. Cat Labrada of Florida Task Force One. The future K-9’s skills will be utilized for intensive search and rescue missions requiring Halo to find humans buried in the rubble in the aftermath of disasters. The pair work together to form a bond filled with love and trust that will carry them through the formative months of training, leading up to a certification exam approving her for duty. Not only do Halo’s humble beginnings set her up as the lovable underdog, they inspire young ones in the audience, showing them that they too can bravely face down big challenges.
This globe-trotting adventure compares and contrasts a few of its four-legged subjects who accomplish amazing stunts while providing support for humans in desperate need. Henry, a British Columbia-based search and rescue dog, helps to locate skiers buried in avalanches. He’s the documentary’s adrenaline junkie, dangling off a helicopter with his handler Ian, trekking in inclement weather. The film’s tear-jerking portion is reserved for Ricochet, a sunshine-loving, surfing Golden Retriever who works as a therapy dog with special-needs children and soldiers with PTSD. Her work, assisting them in overcoming their anxieties and disabilities, demonstrates the ripple effect of helping others.
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In Italy, we meet Reef, a Newfoundland lifeguard, who comes from a long line of coast guard rescue workers. While the other dogs’ exploits are scored with Michel Cusson’s original compositions, Reef gets the biggest honor, having his practice mission rescuing two swimmers set to Ennio Morricone’s “The Ecstasy of Gold.” The iconic piece infuses the segment with levity, but also with a reverence for the task being performed. In Kenya, bloodhounds Tipper and Tony work in a wildlife sanctuary, protecting endangered species. Their keen sense of smell aids in bringing poachers and thieves to justice.
Visual effects augment the easily digestible educational aspects. Animated diagrams gently explain how the biological “superpowers” of both the Newfoundland and Bloodhound make them perfect for their specialized assignments. Sound design also plays a crucial part in our understanding of how these pups listen for and interpret life-saving signals. Ferguson contextualizes their sense of scope when sniffing out trouble, shooting with a fish-eye lens and switching the aspect ratio to widescreen to create an immersive experience seeing through their eyes and hearing through their ears.
Ferguson and company couldn’t have selected a better persona than “Captain America” to give voice to Henry, who acts as the emcee, introducing us to the other super-powered characters. Evans nails the nuance and spirited flair of his dialogue, establishing an easy rapport with the audience. His insightful take on the narrative’s perspective provides the cadence and tone of speaking to a best friend, as a dog would to their human.
This film ought to inspire more than just dog lovers, as the pups are adorable and the lessons about courage, commitment and compassion are exemplary. Not all heroes wear capes — some of them wear collars.