Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero is a computer-animated family movie set during World War I. Can you hear the misguided pleas of concern? I can. “Won’t someone think of the children?” “Why is the media showing kids the ravages of war?” To such thoughtful though presumptuous people, I’d like to point out a few things. Firstly, thanks to the 24-hour news cycles and the ever-increasing accessibility to information via smartphones, kids have seen or heard about such atrocities already.
Secondly, all those fairytales and bedtime stories that children are read every night have dark origins. Throughout the year, centuries for a lot of them, the tales have been cleaned up because “polite society” decided that they knew what is best for children. Such thoughts happen in spite of several studies stating that allowing kids to glimpse that dark, or play violent games, is actually beneficial to their mental well-being.
With all that out of the way, this uplifting film begins as the 102nd Infantry Regiment (United States) was training on the Yale Parade grounds. Early into basics, a Boston Terrier waltzes into camp, looking for the soldier who fed him during the parade. That soldier is Robert Conroy (Logan Lerman), who takes a shining to the enthusiastic and always hungry puppy. To that end, he trains the dog to stand at attention and salute on command so that the Terrier can be a full-fledged soldier.
“…he trains the dog to stand at attention and salute on command so that the Terrier can be a full-fledged soldier.”
Robert and Stubby make it through their training and in 1918 are assigned to Chateau Thierry, which was one of the first warzones enter by the American Expeditionary Forces. Here, Robert, Stubby, and his friends from boot camp Schroeder (Jim Pharr) and Olsen (Jordan Beck) befriend the charismatic cook turned soldier Gaston (Gérard Depardieu). As the war continues, Stubby learns to sniff out injured soldiers under debris and get them medical help. Will Robert and Stubby return home from the Great War?
Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero tells its story quite impressively. While Richard Lanni and Mike Stokey’s screenplay does not get into the nuances of war- the Germans are bad, the USA and French forces are good, and that is that- it does contain solid characterizations. The bond between Robert Conroy and Stubby feels genuine, and it is easy to understand why everyone falls for the cute pooch. Happily, it is not just the leads who have some depth to them.
Olsen seems to complain about everything, but the ending pays this off sweetly. Gaston has a family and fears that whenever he returns home, his girls will not recognize their father anymore. While not a tremendous amount of time is devoted to this, it is refreshing to see the fears of soldiers go beyond death; even more so in what amounts to a boy and his dog story.
Lanni and Stokey’s dialogue is entertaining and works, for the most part. Some lines geared towards the youngest audience members are sillier than the poison gas attacks, and air raids happening all around would suggest. But that is a small price to pay in the grand scheme of things. The dialogue, especially the narrator’s voiceover, minus those two or three moments just mentioned, is very natural. Robert’s sister Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) narrates the movie, using the letters he’d write home as her springboard. This setup works wonderfully and offers insights into Robert’s home life that are not outright stated.
The script also comes to life thanks to an impressive cast. Lerman has proven himself an interesting actor, especially in smaller, more introspective titles like The Vanishing Of Sidney Hall. He ably anchors Robert to reality. His co-stars are just as great with Carter providing an energetic and fun narrator, while Depardieu brings the wit and depth that made him famous to every scene.
“…the real star…is the stylized animation and kinetic direction.”
But, the real star of Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero is the stylized animation and kinetic direction. Richard Lanni also directs the film, and the movie never stops moving. The character animations have a bit of an Hergé-esque design to them: not a ripoff, more of an homage in the best kind of way. While the quality of the animation is nowhere near as realistic as anything Pixar is doing, it is highly detailed and textured.
When discussing the advancing fronts and where AEF are currently located, the film jumps to 2D animation. Specifically taking inspiration from the bold lines and color schemes of propaganda posters of the era, it works perfectly. The weaving into and out of these sequences is seamless and only adds to the momentum and tension. The battle scenes obviously don’t feature a ton of guts or blood but do still come across as brutal. There are several really clever match edits to segue into new sequences that show high creativity. These moments always prove that filmmakers strived to tell this story in as visual a way as possible; which is what the viewer should expect from a movie, though that is not always the case.
Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero is a highly enjoyable and very well made animated feature. It has something for the whole family, is visually impressive with excellent animation, and a fantastic voice cast. What’s not to love?