Think of "Hotel for Dogs" as a sort of "Mission: Impossible" with canines . . . without Tom Cruise, or the international intrigue, or those scary, slice-you-up-into-little-bits bad guys. What it is packed with is lots of sneaking around, very cool gadgets, excellent stunts and some clever kids, though not in the precocious, all-adults-are-stupid way.
In the hands of first-time feature director Thor Freudenthal, this whimsical family comedy feels as if it could have been plucked out of the 1950s, before cynicism seriously set in. It's there from the first frames with a beautifully rendered "Father Knows Best" family -- everyone smiling. But of course the director and the rest of us know the world is darker than that, so the beautiful family turns out to be cardboard cutouts in a store window display looking out on city streets that have a layer of grime.
Fortunately not much else about this film is cardboard, due in part to Freudenthal's light touch and visual sensibility, which splashes surrealism around in all the right places. It won't surprise you to learn he spent time as a storyboard artist.
Our heroes in this adventure are sweet-faced Emma Roberts and just-nerdy-enough Jake T. Austin (playing siblings Andi and Bruce), and their dog Friday, a Jack Russell Terrier. By the time we meet the kids, Andi is 16 and Bruce is 11 and they're in the care of foster parents, a screechy pair who dream of being rock stars: Lisa Kudrow, looking like "Friends' " Phoebe's evil twin, and Kevin Dillon, who will apparently always crave an "Entourage" of his own. Friday, well, he's forced to go underground -- the rockers don't allow dogs.
The plot gets an assist from screenwriters Jeff Lowell and the team of Bob Schooley and Mark McCorkle, who've done a good job of taking the emotional core of the young adult novel of the same name, but given it more grist and more fun.
Andi and Bruce, we learn, have lost their parents in some earlier time, but all we really have to bear is a brief pang of regret that comes with a fading photograph. Even at a glance you can tell they were pretty much perfect parents -- lots of good memories in the bank.
The kids' most pressing issue now is Friday; they don't want to lose another member of the family. What starts as a small scheme to hide him blows up into a massive operation to rescue strays from the streets and the local animal shelter.
Here's where much of the fun of "Hotel for Dogs" resides. There are chase scenes and heist scenes, but the movie's centerpiece is the increasingly complex contraptions younger brother Bruce builds to entertain the canine corps. Everything is created out of found objects scavenged from an abandoned hotel, which becomes a haven for the dogs and headquarters for the search-and-rescue team/hotel staff that Andi and Bruce lead.
The sight gags are terrific, and a shout-out has to go to the wizards behind the gadgets, led by Michael Lantieri, and the ones who trained the dogs, headed by Mark Forbes.
Most of the bad guys are animal control officers, though in truth they're more bumbling than sinister, which in these troubled times is a relief in itself.
The good guy is a sympathetic child services caseworker played by Don Cheadle, who looks relieved to have a role that isn't all blood, anger and angst.
While some of the performances are uneven, the kids, especially the soulful Roberts as she copes with teenage growing pains, are engaging.
Are there corny moments? Yes. Preachy moments? Yes, those too. And a few scenes, particularly a press conference near the end, don't work all that well. But all in all it's a very pleasant way to spend the afternoon with a bunch of kids.
Ultimately, "Hotel for Dogs" is a simple story with a few simple lessons woven in: Nothing is disposable, kids don't have to be cynical to be smart, and families can be built out of just about anything. Not such a bad message for a Hollywood movie.
Oh, and don't hold your hot dog within reach of a hungry dog, which really is a valuable lesson for kids and studio executives alike.