The true tale of a friendly stray mutt turned war hero is the kind of story built for cinematic adaptation. But was it built for animation?
Director Richard Lanni, who has worked on documentary films and series about World War II, co-wrote "Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero" with veteran and Hollywood military adviser Mike Stokey. It depicts the inspiring and unlikely story of Stubby, a mutt that made its way from a training base in Connecticut to the trenches of France during World War I. For his heroic actions, Stubby became the most decorated dog in U.S. Army history and a beloved figure at home stateside.
The short, squat, funny-looking little mutt that was Stubby isn't exactly a war horse. Nevertheless, his exploits and heroics are memorable: stowing away on a ship to France, catching German spies, surviving chemical gas attacks and leading medics to wounded American soldiers.
Stubby's story is so strange and inspiring that it cries out for epic live-action biopic treatment. But that's not what's on offer here.
The choice to make this an animated film positions this as an entertaining, educational film for younger audiences. Producer/distributor Fun Academy Motion Pictures has a mission statement to create films that "entertain, innovate, and inspire," which explains the style of "Sgt. Stubby" — as gentle as it gets for a movie about trench warfare. There's a certain amount of cognitive dissonance when it comes to the material and the approach that the filmmakers take, and much that doesn't get covered in this short, 80-minute primer.
Although some gorgeous battlefield compositions are rendered onscreen, the animated style has a weightlessness that just doesn't serve a narrative this dramatic. The images feel airy and roomy — without much to fill in the space, it just feels empty, an inauthentic digital facsimile of this world.
Logan Lerman voices Robert Conroy, Stubby's master. Helena Bonham Carter offers voice-over duties as Robert's older sister Margaret, though the framing device of the sister's narration, spelling out the emotional beats, is rather unnecessary. Gérard Depardieu gives the most memorable voice performance as Gaston, an ineffably French soldier who forms the "Three Musketeers" with Robert and Stubby (the way he pronounces "Stoo-bee" is a highlight).
This is a unique story, and the archival photographs of Stubby in his medal-bedecked uniform are a delight. The kinds of war stories that bring a little levity and light to the darkness are inspiring. But "Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero" is an ultra-lightweight version of the tale that definitely deserves a heftier treatment.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
‘Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero'
Rating: PG, for war action and some thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Playing: In general release