“Sgt. Stubby” is the rare animated film based on a true story and the rarer animated war movie and the even rarer animated war movie based on a true story. This separates it from “Chicken Run” and “Valiant”. Another thing that separates it is it is not a comedy. It is the story of a dog named Stubby who went from homeless to hero in WWI. Stubby became a newspaper celebrity after the war, but had been largely forgotten since then. The movie attempts to bring him to a modern audience, of kids. It is a computer animated feature. The first major one that was based on a true story. It was co-written and directed by Richard Lanni and produced in Montreal and Paris. A low budget film ($25 million) with little marketing, it bombed. The lack of box office was partly attributed to competition from the behemoth “Rampage” and the oxygen-sucking “Isle of Dogs”. It and Stubby deserved better. It did garner recognition at numerous film festivals.
The movie opens in 1917 with the U.S. preparing for war. A homeless bull terrier is befriended by a recruit named Conroy (Logan Lerman) in a training camp. Stubby’s first big obstacle is overcome by Conroy teaching him to salute. This makes him a better soldier than Conroy and his mates, according to the commanding officer. His mates are a German-American named Schroeder and a dog-hater named Olsen. The second obstacle is solved by stowing away on the troop ship. They end up in the trenches with a French poilu named Gaston (Gerard Depardieu) as their tutor. He shows them the ropes. They, and today’s four-year olds, learn about life in the trenches (there are cute rats that try to eat their food!) They also learn that war is heck with its artillery bombardments and poison gas. The doughboys used bolt-action rifles. They used periscopes to look out the trench. Stubby proves adept at locating wounded soldiers, alerting about poison gas, and capturing spies. He even saves a whole village. That dog is magnifique!
“Sgt. Stubby” should have a future for middle school substitute teacher days. At least the kids would learn something. It hits the headlines of Stubby’s bio (see Historical Accuracy section below). The tutoring is done in a kid-friendly way, but the facts are effectively chronicled. The movie is surprisingly accurate although hardly realistic. No man’s land is not a particularly scary place and the trench is like you want your four-year old’s room to be. Why can’t your room look like a WWI trench? To its credit, the film does feature a bombed out church.
Stubby is rendered as cute and charming, but he is not anthropomorphic. He does not talk and he has no special powers. He cannot talk. He whimpers well. Kudos to the voice actor. The rest of the cast is fine. Helena Bonham Carter voices Conroy’s sister. The framing device is her narration (which is a nice touch because you wonder if Conroy survives). Gerard Depardieu provides the French accent for Gaston.
As usual with computer generated, the dog looks more life-like than the humans. Overall, the animation is fine. They thrown in some cool animated maps to give the audience some geographical perspective. Did you know that the Chemins des Dames is near Soissons? It’s not Pixar, but it matches the material. Balto goes to the Western Front. The animation also matches the PG depiction of the war. The trenches are pristine (and amazingly vacant) and there are little of the aspects of the war that made it so horrific. The movie is more about the bond of a man and his dog than it is about man’s inhumanity toward man. It does not rain and there is little mud on this Western Front, for instance. Your children may get the impression that WWI was pretty cool if you had your pet with you. However, there is a death thrown in at the end to give some perspective. And you may have to explain that poison gas is unlikely to be used in your neighborhood.
In conclusion, “Sgt. Stubby” is effective edutainment. Kids will like it and parents will not feel cloyed at. It even includes a cameo from George Patton and his tanks so war movie buffs can show off their knowledge. Kids, you know who that is? But you won’t have to tell them who Sgt. Stubby was, the movie will do that nicely.
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: Stubby was the official mascot of the 102nd Infantry Regiment, 26th Infantry Division (as called in the movie – The Yankee Division). He was either a Bull Terrier or Boston Terrier that hooked up with a training unit in Massachusetts in 1917 after America’s entry. Robert Conroy adopted the dog and taught him to salute, which impressed the leadership enough to allow him to stick around. He stuck around for the full 18 months and 17 battles. He became the most decorated war dog of WWI. The movie does not cover all seventeen battles, but it does begin at the Chemins des Dames and ends in the Argonne. The maps are very helpful with this.
It manages to catch most of Stubby’s resume. He did get wounded by grenade fragments in a raid on Seicheprey. He did warn of poison gas attacks and was eventually given his own gas mask (but not until after being a victim). Saving the village was an exaggeration, but he was given his chamois coat by villagers. He did warn of artillery bombardments with his doggie senses. He did locate wounded soldiers in no man’s land. And he apparently did capture a German scout by biting him on the ass. Now, keep in mind, this biography was based on newspaper accounts and there’s a good chance that the dog’s exploits were enhanced. You can’t blame the screenwriters for this. It was a nice touch adding Patton with his M1917 tanks (American-made French Renaults), although it smacks of pandering to fanatics like me. Kudos for showing him afoot!
As a post script, Conroy smuggled Stubby home where he became a celebrity. He attended Georgetown Law School with Conroy and became the football team mascot. He led military parades and met Presidents Wilson, Harding, and Coolidge. He was presented a Humane Education Society medal by Gen. Pershing. He died in 1926 and is now on display in the Smithsonian.
GRADE = B