I was pretty sure, based on the trailer, that Hotel for Dogs was not going to be a great kid’s movie, but I was hopeful that it would be decent, maybe even good. I pinned those hopes on Don Cheadle’s participation, but honestly, I never did figure out what he saw in this movie. It has all the requisite cuteness factors, so young kids will like it (mine did). But beyond that, Hotel for Dogs is wholly predictable and tiring, delivering its “message” with all the subtlety of a flashing neon sign.
Orphans Andi (Emma Roberts) and Bruce (Jake T. Austin) are living with their fifth set of foster parents in three years. These are Carl (Kevin Dillon) and Lois (Lisa Kudrow), wannabe rockers who are not only devoid of talent, but also of any nurturing inclinations. The kids comfort themselves with the fact that they have been able to stay together through the revolving doors of foster homes, even managing to hold on to their dog Friday. But this has also driven them to a life of petty crime, as they’ve been running scams to make money for dog food.
When their social worker Bernie (Cheadle) bails Andi and Bruce out for what is clearly not the first time, he warns them that Carl and Lois are their last chance to stay together. Realizing they need to find Friday a new home, they stumble into the dilapidated Hotel Francis Duke, where two stray dogs have taken up residence. You know by the title where this is going: add a few friends to help Andi and Bruce care for the dogs (and develop social relationships outside of each other), a few dozen more stray dogs, and a bunch of Bruce’s dog-friendly inventions and you have the bulk of the film.
Hotel for Dogs is very loosely based on Lois Duncan’s 1971 children’s novel of the same name. The only elements maintained from the book are the children’s names and the fact that they take in stray dogs. In the book, Andi and Bruce are not orphans, and their family has moved from Albuquerque to Ellwood, NJ and they’re having trouble making friends. They board their stray dogs in an abandoned suburban house rather than a multi-million dollar city hotel full of cool antiques. The book’s story is far simpler and, I suppose, sort of timeless (it does date itself when Bruce uses a slide projector to trick his adversary — a far cry from movie-Bruce’s cool inventions). In the book, the conflict is mainly between children, rather than the played-out plot device of pitting clever kids against moronic adults (Cheadle’s character is the only adult who isn’t a horrid, ridiculous caricature — perhaps this is what he saw in it).
The movie version of Hotel for Dogs changes the story in order to make an overt social statement. A broken down foster care system that leaves children to fend for themselves becomes the focus here, while rescuing stray dogs is merely a metaphor. By providing a loving dream home for dogs, Andi and Bruce provide the resolution they want for themselves. This is all well and good, but unfortunately, Hotel for Dogs is heavy-handed in its delivery, unwilling to risk that we might miss the point. As if we could.
Explicit dialogue only makes this process more ponderous. When Dave (Johnny Simmons) explains to Andi that no one wants to adopt the three dogs at his pet store because “They aren’t puppies anymore and everyone wants puppies,” she replies, “Tell me about it,” her expression so very knowing. Near the end, the film cuts between scenes of Andi and Bruce in separate boys and girls group homes and the hotel dogs in the pound. Just in case you hadn’t figured it out by the time the happy ending comes around though, Bernie hammers it some more. “These kids didn’t get frustrated with the system,” he tells the adults around him, “They made it work!”