Movies like "Benji" and "Lassie" with their uber-pooches have set a high standard for the heroic dog genre, so the makers of "Firehouse Dog" have taken a slightly different tack: Let the human actors take center stage. It's an odd concept by doggie family film standards, but if anybody is suited to try new tricks with an old genre, it's director Todd Holland, one of the guiding hands behind the hit TV series "Malcolm in the Middle."
Right from the outset, Holland makes clear this is not your typical doggie pic. An over-the-top lead features Rex as a personified pooch and A-list actor complete with an attitude, "fur piece" and diamond-encrusted bling. His pampered life comes to sudden end, however, when he falls out of a plane and lands in the care of brooding preteen Shane Fahey (Josh Hutcherson) and his father (Bruce Greenwood), the captain of the inner-city "Dogpatch" fire station.
Shane and Co. soon discover that there's something different about Rex. Not only does he skateboard and beg for a bath, but he also manages the nigh impossible by cleaning Shane's sty of a room. Oh, yes, he saves lives too and in so doing instills much-needed pride in Shane and the ragtag fire crew.
"Firehouse Dog" is more than a cute canine caper. What sets up as a furry version of "Doc Hollywood" quickly evolves into a father-son parable as Shane and his father struggle with the impending closure of the run-down station, a possible firebug and the emotional scars left after the recent death of Shane's uncle, the station's former captain.
Rex, of course, helps every step of the way, but despite his physical and mental acumen, he's surprisingly devoid of personality. Picking up the slack is Hutcherson, who was recently seen in "Bridge to Terabithia." This time around, Hutcherson gets his turn to shine while his female counterpart (Hannah Lochner) remains in the background.
Aside from Hutcherson, the film's other strength is its restraint. Holland lets Rex act as his own stunt dog, and the budding romantic relationship between Shane's father and a rival fire captain (Claudette Mink) isn't forced.
The same can be said for the movie as a whole. Though it never completely catches fire, there's enough earnestness and warmth that makes it a welcome alternative in a family film arena dominated by computer animation and associated toy lines.
"Firehouse Dog." MPAA rating: PG for sequences of action peril, some mild crude humor and language. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes. In general release.