These are the dog days of summer, but in Hollywood, the current infatuation with canine fare has made “pet projects" a year-round pursuit.
There have been a dozen canine-centric feature films released since the start of last year, the most recent being “Dog Days,” an ensemble romance about Californians who bond over their pooches that hit theaters last week. It will be followed on Friday by “Alpha,” a prehistoric adventure that depicts the origins of the man-canine friendship and does so with big-dog ambitions — the Ice Age epic will also be released in the IMAX format.
Those join a pack of pooch movies that also includes “Show Dogs,” “Isle of Dogs,” “Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero,” “Patrick,” “Benji,” “A Dog's Purpose,” “Megan Leavey," “Santa Stole Our Dog,” “Life in the Doghouse” and “The Stray.”
It’s a wildly diverse group, from the campy talking-pooch crime comedy of “Show Dogs" (with voice actors Shaquille O'Neal as Karma the toy spaniel and RuPaul as a Mexican hairless named Persephone) to the harrowing, true-life battlefield drama of “Megan Leavey" (which stars Kate Mara as a Marine corporal deployed in Iraq with her K-9 partner, Rex).
The common link, of course, is the tail-wagging scene-stealers getting all the close-ups.
“I think on some level, we all are suckers for watching dogs do tricks or looking cute — be it on the internet or up on a movie screen,” said Ken Marino, director of “Dog Days,” which stars Eva Longoria, Vanessa Hudgens, Nina Dobrev and Finn Wolfhard of “Stranger Things.”
Marino said “Dog Days" explores how canines reveal the hidden humanity their owners might miss in a place as dauntingly disconnected as Los Angeles.
“The theme of our movie is the way that dogs can connect people to each other. If you put two people in a room alone, they might have trouble breaking the ice. Put a dog in the same room and those people find things in common and, just maybe, they find love or friendship.”
If there’s a tail end to Hollywood’s dog show, it's nowhere in sight. That's both timely and appropriate in 2018 — the Year of the Dog, according to the Chinese zodiac. Upcoming releases include “A Dog's Way Home" in January (a dog treks 400 miles to find its owner, with Ashley Judd starring), “A Dog's Journey” in May (a reincarnated dog gets a new leash on life) and “The Secret Lives of Pets 2” next June (Patton Oswalt replaces Louis C.K. as the voice of Max in the sequel to the 2016 summer hit).
The sky's the limit for Hollywood’s dog ambitions, it seems: Warner Bros. last week confirmed that it’s ramping up “Super Pets," an animated feature film chronicling the adventures of Superman's caped canine (Krypto the Superdog), Batman's crime-solving companion (Ace the Bat-Hound), Supergirl’s orange tabby (Streaky the Supercat) and other heroic animal companions from the pages of DC Comics. The family-friendly script is being written by Jared Stern, whose credits include “The Lego Batman Movie."
Disney, meanwhile, expects filming to begin later this year on a remake of its 1955 classic “Lady and the Tramp,” which will be a hybrid of live action with computer-generated visual effects (in the vein of the 2016 hit “The Jungle Book"). That movie is taking a modern path to the marketplace — instead of opening at theaters, it will be offered exclusively on Disney's streaming service, a high-priority initiative the company will launch late next year.
It sounds like Hollywood is becoming a kennel with cameras, but there's a long cinematic heritage for history of canine stars jumping through hoops for filmmakers. Rin-Tin-Tin, a German Shepard rescued from the battlefields of World War I by an American soldier, became an international star in the silent era and made more than two dozen pictures. The 1943 movie “Lassie Come Home" introduced the collie character to the movies. There were more than a half dozen sequels and follow-up films, as well as hit shows on television and radio. Disney's heart-tugging 1957 hit “Old Yeller" has been seen by generations — although the film's 1963 sequel, “Savage Sam,” was a commercial runt (and dismissed by the Washington Post reviewer as a “dogged, listless effort.”
“Dog movies seem to come and go in cycles, like so many things in Hollywood,” says Mark Forbes, a dog trainer who has worked on dozens of films, including “Alpha,” “We Bought a Zoo" and the live-action "101 Dalmatians” in 1996. “Right now, there's definitely a wave of them and a lot of interest in them."
That flurry may represent more than the usual cycle of Tinseltown tastes. Pet obsession is running at an all-time in high in the United States, and according to the American Pet Products Assn., Americans spent a record $69.5 billion on their pets in 2017, a total that’s skyrocketed since 2008, when $43.2 billion was spent.
To Jennifer Nosek, editor of Modern Dog magazine, the statistics show robust growth in the number of first-time pet owners, but the more meaningful measure is the depth of passion shown by those owners, many of whom view themselves as adoptive parents.
“It’s not just the number of pet lovers, it's the degree to which pets are increasingly now adored and doted on as family members” Nosek said. “That represents the real sea change.”
To “Dog Days" director Marino (the owner of two rescue pooches himself), the numbers are interesting but not especially surprising.
“I'm not sure if there's just more dog owners than ever or if they have just decided to own their obsession in a big way,” he says. “You can't really throw a dog biscuit in Los Angeles — or anywhere in the country as a whole — without hitting a dog lover.”
Marino said the challenge of filming “Dog Days" was capturing the magic moments of pet connection as well as the expected vagaries of working with animals. “No matter how trained a dog is,” he said, “they don’t understand that they're making a movie.”
That challenge was even greater on the set of “Alpha,” a tale of survival for a hunter named Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who befriends a wounded wolf, marking the first rapport between man and canine. The film is directed by Albert Hughes (“Menace II Society,” “From Hell"), who also conceived its story.
(On Wednesday, PETA called for a boycott of “Alpha,” regarding use of bison in the movie. In a press release, PETA alleged that “multiple bison were reportedly slaughtered and partially skinned to be used for a hunting scene.” A source close to the production countered that no bison were killed for the sole purpose of the picture and that the film contracted with a reputable meat-processing company to purchase previously harvested bison carcasses).
For Forbes, the veteran animal trainer, reading the script “was something special. It still gives me goosebumps.” The same, he added, applied to the experience of working with Chuck, a wolf-dog whose lineage tracks back to the 1950s, when the Czech military bred German shepherds with wolves.
“He's got some dog in him, but he is very wolf-like in his look and aloof in a way that dogs aren't," Forbes said. “The experience was unique, and the story of the movie is too. I spend a lot of time thinking about dogs and their psychology, so the idea of going back to the place the friendship started? It was moving for me, and it made me appreciate dogs even more.”