Review: Family drama ‘Dakota’ would have benefited from more of the dog

A girl kneeling on the ground reading a letter beside a dog in the movie “Dakota.”
Lola Sultan in the movie “Dakota.”
(Samuel Goldwyn Films)

The aggressively family-oriented “Dakota” is a good-versus-evil live-action cartoon, occasionally dipping its toe into PTSD. It means to be about a struggling family saved by a brave dog. What most viewers will agree on is that it needed more dog.

Mom Kate (Abbie Cornish) and daughter Alex (Lola Sultan) are facing foreclosure on their farm in a small Georgia town. Kate’s “job” is as an apparently untrained, one-woman volunteer fire department. No, that doesn’t seem like a good idea, now that you mention it. Kate and Alex are in mourning, as dad Clay was killed a few months earlier while serving in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, super-evil Sheriff Danforth (Patrick Muldoon) schemes to take their land. Enter Clay’s hunky Marine friend CJ (Tim Rozon), bringing along Dakota, a military dog apparently traumatized by the death of her beloved Clay.

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As the mustache-twirling sheriff, Muldoon has some evil fun, though the film feels uncommitted to the slapstick. We know he’s evil, though, because after his brother describes the nice family as “good people,” Sheriff Danforth rasps, “So are we, little brother,” then pausing, with no one there to hear him, “So are we.”


Cornish is a very good and underutilized actor who seems to be in a different movie — one in which emotional reality is a thing. More evidence the film isn’t settled on a tone: Kate comforts Alex, and just as a tear becomes visible on Kate’s face, the scene jaggedly cuts between mother and daughter. And it’s a tough sell that, only months after Clay’s death, Kate’s seemingly suddenly attracted to his friend, whom she has just met. And why do only a few people in this tiny, pseudo-rural Georgia town (including Kate but not Alex) have Southern accents? For such a minuscule municipality, its downtown is sure as heck colorful and nice and new, almost as if the location scouts did not have rural Georgia on their minds.

On meeting very good girl Dakota, Alex declares, “I don’t need a dog; I need my dad!” Then she runs off. Of course you don’t buy that Alex will long resist Dakota’s charms; Dakota is, after all, a very good girl, yes she is, yes she is.

But we get disappointingly little of Dakota, an apparent genius who can figure out things on the fly that most humans might take a moment to understand. She has a touching moment upon her arrival at the farm, but after that, there’s not much beyond a few quirks to establish her personality or relationships. The film gives lip service to PTSD — apparently she has been retired from service because she was so traumatized by Clay’s death — but it’s not explored at all. What a lovely arc it might have been to see this scared, hurt dog learn to love and trust again.

But those seeking that in “Dakota” will be barking up the wrong tree.


Rated PG

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes

Playing: Starts April 1, Regal Sherman Oaks Galleria