"SGT. STUBBY: AN AMERICAN HERO" — 2 stars — Voices of Logan Lerman, Helena Bonham Carter, Gerard Depardieu, Jason Ezzell; PG (war action and some thematic elements); in general release
Based on a true story, Richard Lanni's "Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero" follows the animated adventures of a dog that served in the U.S. Army during World War I.
For a brief moment, we see a small mutt deep in the trenches in France during March 1918, then we flash back six months to the United States, where a contingency of U.S. soldiers is training to enter World War I.
It's during this basic training that a charismatic little dog attaches himself to a doughboy named Robert Conroy (voiced by Logan Lerman) and then endears himself to senior officers as well. Stubby — named for his short tail — quickly becomes a kind of mascot to the unit, and when the unit deploys to France, Stubby manages to tag along as a stowaway.
Along with a curly redhead named Olsen (Jordan Beck) and a German immigrant named Schroeder (Jim Pharr), Conroy is part of a group known as the Yankee Division, which gets thrust into action soon after arrival. Right away, Stubby joins the war effort, sniffing out wounded soldiers and assisting in other various capacities.
Along the way, Conroy becomes a kind of parallel protagonist, meeting up with a French soldier named Gaston Baptiste (Gerard Depardieu), who shows him the ropes on the front lines. Together with Stubby, they refer to themselves as the Three Musketeers and work together on spy missions to scope out German troop movements.
The source material may be a true story, but it struggles to engage as a movie. The linear plot basically just follows the different (and reportedly true) adventures and encounters Stubby and Co. have in Europe, including shootouts with German soldiers and bouts with mustard gas.
There's no real character arc or conflict for the canine protagonist, which is fairly understandable, but there's no real attempt to develop Conroy or the other characters, either. (His sister Margaret, voiced by Helena Bonham Carter, narrates the film.)
The bigger problem is the clash created by trying to mix a pair of incompatible genres. As an animated family-friendly feature, you're obligated to keep the war content at arm's length, but since the film is taking place in the middle of a war, it can't exactly be the kind of entertaining happy-go-lucky bit of animation you might expect with a wide-eyed dog in the title role. The result is pretty bland, though admittedly, it's difficult to think of a better way to tell the story.
Combined with some stiff, low-grade animation and questionable voice performances from the supporting actors, it's hard to recommend "Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero" in spite of its good intentions. It should carry a certain degree of patriotic appeal — especially for dog lovers — but for families, it's really a second-option matinee at best and probably better suited for Netflix.
"Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero" is rated PG for war action and some thematic elements; running time: 85 minutes.