When a computer-animated film doesn’t emerge from one of the traditional giants of the medium – Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks, Blue Sky or Illumination – it’s easy to relegate it to the status of an also-ran, something to catch on DVD, Netflix or Amazon Prime on a rainy afternoon. Every once in a while, however, an independently-made CG animation comes along that makes you sit up and take notice, as in the case of Fun Academy’s Sgt. Stubby: An Unlikely Hero.
Sgt. Stubby is the true-life tail – sorry, tale – of “America’s most-decorated dog”, who wound up in the trenches of World War One after stowing away on a ship taking his master to the battlefields of France in 1917, just as America joined the optimistically-named “War to End All Wars.” Stubby is a stray mutt – a Heinz 57 blend of Boston terrier and bulldog, maybe – living on the streets of New Haven, Connecticut, who insinuates himself into the life and affections of a young infantryman or “doughboy”, Robert Conroy. The little dog with the stubby tail is supposed to be left behind when Conroy ships out to fight Germans, but the young man hasn’t reckoned with Stubby’s dogged determination not to be parted from his adopted master.
At first, Conroy’s superiors don’t take too kindly to the idea of a dog running around, but when the young soldier teaches him to salute, he becomes a kind of regimental mascot. And then he starts chasing rats out of the trenches… which is only the beginning of his battlefield heroism. Before the war is over, Stubby has saved a village from a mustard gas attack, pulled a wounded soldier from the battlefield, caught a German spy – literally holding him by the seat of his pants until Allied soldiers could apprehend him – and melted the hearts of everyone he meets. He even got himself an honorary promotion, and – when he died in 1926 – a half-page obituary in the New York Times.
Now, a hundred years after his service, the plucky little stray is likely to melt a few million more hearts thanks to director/co-writer Richard Lanni’s imaginative animation, narrated by Helena Bonham Carter (as Conroy’s sister Margaret) and featuring the voices of Percy Jackson himself, Logan Lerman, and legendary French actor Gérard Depardieu, who plays Gaston, a French poilu soldier who befriends Conroy in the trenches. Lanni, best known for a series of war documentaries, seems right at home in his new medium, mixing animation styles to provide some context for the Great War, and managing to hint at its horrors – juxtaposed with sometimes beautiful landscapes and lighting without showing anything that might upset children. The original score by Patrick Doyle, composer of Brave, Thor and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, is another highlight in this highly unlikely story from an animation company well worth keeping an eye on.
Is Sgt. Stubby: An Unlikely Hero a Good Movie for Kids?
It’s hard to think of how to make a film about World War I that’s suitable for children – Steven Spielberg’s War Horse (cert. 12A), for example, is way too heavy for younger children. But in finding the story of Stubby, Lanni and his co-writer Mike Stokey have found a way to introduce the Great War to a new generation of children, seeing it through the equally uncomprehending eyes of a little dog with a big heart. It’s possible that the film’s subject matter may provoke questions from the younger viewers it’s aimed at, not only about the 1914-18 conflict, but about war in general.