Sunday, I took our girls, ages 10 and 13, to see "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" at the Crossroads theaters in Cary. Somehow the reels got switched and instead of showing the family-friendly "Button," they began running "Four Christmases," which gets off to a quick, vulgar beginning, all of which aired before the theater discovered its error.
I mention this because while we value creativity and the element of surprise in movies, there's also something to be said for not being too surprised, especially in movies you take your kids to see. When you take your kids to a family movie you want to be entertained, not offended, not patronized, not bored. You don't expect a "Toy Story" or "The Incredibles" every time. But you don't expect "Daddy Day Camp," either.
"Hotel for Dogs" is a classic example of what you do go expecting: a flick that adequately meets this family-friendly formula.
In "Hotel," Andi (Emma Roberts of Nickelodeon's "Unfabulous" fame) and Bruce (Jake T. Austin of Disney Channel's "Wizards of Waverly Place") are orphans who are on their fifth pair of foster parents, an off-key couple played by Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon operating under the delusion that they're the next Jack and Meg White. The two are far from nurturing, but as the kids' social worker (Don Cheadle) cautions them, this may well be the last couple willing to accept a sibling couple so old.
Their issue: They dabble in larceny to keep a shadow member of their orphan entourage, a peppy Jack Russell Terrier named Friday, in kibble. After getting caught scamming a pawn shop owner, social worker Bernie tells them they can't afford to screw up again.
So they go out, break into an abandoned hotel and turn it into a hostel for street dogs. Along the way, they add to their rap sheet by springing incarcerated canines from puppy prison (the dog pound) and leading a police chase through town.
The creativity in "Hotel" comes in two forms. Eleven-year-old Bruce is an inventor whose Rube Goldberg contraptions do everything from feed the hungry pack en masse to provide elevator service via an electric drill, a bicycle and a bucket. (The fire hydrant flush urinal is particularly inspired.) The dogs' fitness needs are met (treadmills with a bone tied to the end as incentive) and the cooped-up canines can even replicate that favorite pooch pastime of riding with their heads out the window thanks to a contraption consisting of car doors, chairs, fans and big screen TVs depicting the passing countryside.
The movie's other creative strength is its 13 animal trainers, the real two-legged stars of "Hotel for Dogs." Instead of relying on computer fakery to pull of the anthropomorphicization crucial to making this film work, they rely on good old-fashioned training. Training to get Boston terrier Georgia to be a real tease when it comes to fetch; training to get Lenny, a bull mastiff, to yowl on cue whenever the shades are pulled, training to get Cooper, a bulldog, to rip apart anything he can get ahold of.
The surprises in "Hotel" come strictly from creative moments, not the plot. All dogs may go to heaven but typically not in the course of an upbeat family movie. Instead, they check into a plush hotel catering to pooches and live happily ever after.
No surprises here. But again, as our inadvertent exposure to "Four Christmases" reminds us, when it comes to kids movies that's not always a bad thing.