During his decade or so on earth, Stubby the terrier accomplished far more than some people (including me) will achieve in their human-length lifetimes. A Connecticut stray that became the most decorated dog in U.S. history, “Sergeant” Stubby‘s exploits during World War I include locating and rescuing the wounded, capturing a German spy, and warning American and French troops about mustard gas strikes. He endured gas attacks himself, as well as grenade wounds.
For his 18 months of service, he was introduced to three presidents and given a cushy post-military gig as the mascot of the Georgetown Hoyas. Upon his death in 1926, the New York Times memorialized Sergeant Stubby with a half-page obituary, and his body was donated to the Smithsonian. To ask who’s a good boy in his presence would be an insult.
I can’t say that the world needed “Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero,” the new animated biopic (doggopic? pupperpic?) about a wordless creature who, despite a few movie-like touches, is more animal than Pixar-ish humanoid. Cartoon Stubby moves, acts and, most importantly, sounds like a real dog.
Director and co-writer Richard Lanni (“The Americans in the Bulge”), who penned with Mike Stokey, smartly leans on naturalistic canine charm to tell a story that already feels too incredible to be true. At 75 minutes, the resulting feature is the definition of slight, but just winsome and optimistic enough to justify itself.
A young Army soldier, Robert Conroy (voiced by Logan Lerman), gives Stubby his accidental calling. A fateful encounter on the street — and the surprising leniency of Robert’s superiors — makes the stocky, diminutive canine a fixture on the base, where doughboys are being trained to fight the Germans. The human dramas range from predictable to wholly dispensable. Among Conroy’s buddies, Olsen (Jordan Beck) declares that he hates dogs and Schroeder (Jim Pharr) wants to prove that, despite his Teutonic accent, he belongs in his chosen home, not the one he left behind.
In France, Conroy’s mentor becomes Baptiste (Gérard Depardieu), a genial Gaul who enjoys — wait for it — cheese and wine. A quasi-storyline about the gradual erosion of French prejudice against their American allies feels out of place. And the film’s narrator (Helena Bonham Carter), Conroy’s never-seen big sister and the only female “character,” feels like an element the writers shoehorned in to hit a marketing quadrant goal.
No matter. The plot hardly makes a difference, since the movie’s chief asset is its heartwarming but never Pollyanna-ish ambience. Exercising welcome restraint (especially for a children’s movie), Lanni never states the biggest lesson to be learned from Stubby’s story: That when talent, loyalty, and friendship are nurtured, there’s no telling what miracles may arise. Nothing is more dehumanizing than war, and it was crucial for soldiers in the trenches to feel a connection to their own humanity through a dog’s companionship — and wise of Conroy’s higher-ups to permit their troops the comfort that Stubby represented.
Yes, it’s adorable when Conroy teaches Stubby how to salute, and when the dog dons a cape that the local villagers make for him as a thank-you gift for warning them about impending mustard gas. (The chemical weapon — rendered as a genuinely creepy neon-green smoke that Maleficent might swirl herself around in — is a standout image among otherwise unremarkable CG animation).
We never forget that this is war, and a loss late in the film is accordingly moving. Through it all runs Stubby, blissfully ignorant of human cruelty and unwaveringly stalwart in protecting those he loves.