THIS TIME on Torments, Dan takes a look at some doggy wog filmo bong.
The cottage industry of straight-to-video dog films has been churning out releases since the advent of Beethoven and Air Bud – sickly-sweet family films that nevertheless achieved considerable success in the cinema. The proliferation of family-friendly doggo movies has permitted Karate Dog and Russell Madness to actually get made, cementing the questionable legacy of canine cinema’s enduring mogul, Robert Vince, whose Air Bud Studios exists solely to inflict Air Buddies spin-offs and MVP: Most Vertical Primate call-backs upon the world at large.
Vince was not involved with Robo-Dog, a baffling trudge through bereavement, unemployment and tampering in God’s domain, but he may as well have been. It is an identikit ‘dog movie’ if ever I’ve seen one, comprised entirely of borrowed parts and human anguish, masquerading as wholesome family fun. Everything about this cynical piece of work is calculated in the broadest terms, betraying its blatant laziness at every conceivable turn.
Lassie this ain’t. Robo-Dog is indistinguishable from the slew of Disney Channel originals that flop onto the market, with mop-haired cherubs awkwardly mincing through hackneyed dialogue and adults chewing through all the scenery they can. The difference between Robo-Dog and its contemporaries in crumminess is its intense reliance on harrowing misery. The film opens with the titular canine dying of heat exhaustion after becoming accidentally trapped in the attic. The following scene features young Tyler (Michael Campion) cradling his beloved companion, rocking back and forth, weeping inconsolably.
And this is just the first 10 minutes. The film actually bucks dog-film convention by not killing off one (or both) of the kid’s parental figures before the movie begins, a common trope among its peers. Tragedy is, apparently, inescapable in these things: See Cop Dog, Firehouse Dog and Angel Dog for prime, soul-crushing examples. Fortunately for Tyler, his parents are both alive and well, though his father (Patrick Muldoon) is a kooky scientist who, weirdly, is unable to raise his voice above a smoker’s whisper. His mother (Olivia d’Abo), conversely, doesn’t seem to care when Tom (the dad) loses his job at the robotics/clean energy (?) company run by the criminally insane Mr. Willis (Wallace Shawn).
Raised in a household of mourning and apathy, it’s unsurprising that Tyler is an awkward, pensive loner incapable of human emotion. With his mid-90s barnet and glazed-over eyes, the poor child receives a glimmer of hope when his departed canine buddy is reincarnated in the abominable Frankensteinian form of Robo-Dog. Created by Tom in a drunken stupor (probably), Robo-Dog (voiced by prolific VA James Arnold Taylor) does not yet know why we cry but he’s determined to find out, tagging along with Tyler and, by virtue of his mere presence, constantly reminding him of his recent loss.
Thanks entirely to Robo-Dog’s arsenal of inexplicable gadgets, as opposed to heartwarming lessons of acceptance, forgiveness and moving on, Tyler slowly warms to the android animal amid kooky shenanigans and terrible physical comedy. Honestly, there’s not much to say. It’s utterly placid, meandering drool that caters to its young target audience in the style of the Disney Channel originals it desperately hopes to emulate.
The lighting is endlessly bright and overbearing, resulting in washed out faces and cookie-cutter environments becoming even blander. The performances are largely broad and overplayed, with the exception of the Austin family’s neighbours, who act as though they were ripped straight out of Stepford Wives. (Perhaps ‘act’ is the wrong word.) The score is almost exclusively pizzicato – plucked violin strings – that tries to suggest a sense of fun and capering that is entirely absent from the film.
Comparisons are easy to make in a critical review. Nothing exists in isolation. Films are inspired by other films – that’s why we have genres – but, more often than not, films operating within that genre try to do something a little different to differentiate themselves from the crowd. To take dog movies – Space Buddies puts the pups on the moon. Karate Dog does karate, I suppose. Robo-Dog is a robot, certainly, but he does nothing that a non-robot dog could not do. He is a poorly-edited prop that makes people’s trousers fall off with an extendable arm that’s longer than he is.
It’s silly, sure, and intended for young children, but it’s just a bit shit. Children deserve better than this drek, and others of its ilk. Films like Robo-Dog and its contemporaries are, frankly, insulting to youngsters who could be watching something much, much better. Young children don’t really know better, obviously, but they deserve better, and that’s what makes this crap so offensive.