The night before I saw Dog, Channing Tatum made a guest spot on Jimmy Kimmel Live. On the show, Channing explained that many prolific filmmakers, including long-time collaborator Steven Soderberg, advised against a canine-driven road trip movie, thinking it was a tired, creatively bankrupt idea. Having seen Dog, I side with Channing. In no way, shape or form is Dog attempting to fool the audience into thinking it’s anything opposite of what it is. Dog’s a heartfelt buddy movie where the jokes land when they should, and the sentiment is genuine. It’s as basic as basic can be, as it should be.
Anyone who’s seen a road trip film knows what to expect. Channing’s journey hits the usual speed bumps. Our hero gets arrested, his car breaks down, and he has an uncontrollable four-legged companion driving him up the walls. So does anything make this film any different than other cuddly animal films? No, but the conventions are more effective.
I have no problem with cliches. As a failed screenwriter who worked the beat, I respect the conventions, repetitions, and remixes. I understand the meaning behind the salt that makes the sauce kick our cinematic tastebuds into high gear. Life itself is a movie scene. Our cars break down; we wake up to the same boring routine every day, and the things that seem like they should be in a movie happen in real life. That’s why cliches exist.
Usually, I’d be bored to death with this kind of film. However, there’s something about Channing Tatum that’s just so darned charming. He’s a jock with a heart of gold who isn’t phoning in his goodwill. Almost everyone on the project has some connection with him. When a movie is made with love, there’s something between the pixels of the frame that’s organic. Pets can be used as distractions for lackluster sentimentality. As much as I like the Airbuds and Beethoven’s of my time, although fun, don’t have the soul Dog does.
Channing Tatum plays Briggs, a young war vet assigned to look after a fallen soldier’s four-legged companion. Command orders are to deliver Lilly (the Dog) to the funeral of the deceased owner for his casket procedure. Briggs must tame Lilly along the journey to be on her best behavior for the procession in avoidance of catastrophe. Lilly’s not the usual image of fur flowing through the wind model pup. She’s an uncontrollable pain in the derriere. Lil’s dirty fur and drooling mouth aren’t the typical conventions of cute and I like her all the more for it. There’s something authentic in Lilly’s lack of studio produced dog beauty that’ lovely. When tearing up furniture or running aimlessly full sprint, Lilly is a personality all in herself that feels more real and less like a performance from an on set trainer.
Why she misbehaves isn’t just because Lilly’s a rapturous hound. The effects of war give animals shell shock like it does humans. When Lilly’s eating up Briggs’ truck or reducing her cage to pieces, it’s clear she’s in pain. All Lilly knows is violence. Sick your targets and muzzle up when not using your teeth as weapons. That’s Lilly’s everyday routine. The connection Briggs and Lilly shared from PTSD is an imaginable shared bond between man and animal in the military. A similar film to Dog, which springs to my head, is Max. The picture’s simplicity makes Dog feel all the more authentic, whereas movies like Max are fabricated beyond any form of emotion. From my vague recollection, Max’s plot made everything more complicated than it needed to be.
To make matters worse, Max is obnoxiously patriotic to the point of sexually arousing Michael Bay if he were to see it. The plot is almost the same as Dog, with various noticeable differences to punch a narrative that doesn’t need any punching up whatsoever. The result? Max is a quasi straight to video, cinematic disaster. How it didn’t land directly to DVD goes way over my head.
Always remember kids, less is more. If you want to make a film about a man and his companion, keep it to the point. Why does Briggs need Lilly? Go off of that question, then build from there. Bouncing between a linear series of wacky events, Dog stays primarily grounded in its execution. When Briggs fakes being blind to earn a free hotel room, I’m astounded by his decision. At the same time, I get how Briggs got there. With not a cent in his pocket, living in his truck, Briggs hustles when he must, manipulating the game of life to his advantage. As unforgiving as life is, Briggs seeks positivity amidst adversity. Having no real place he can call home, Briggs shares much in common with Lilly. Both housebroken, both lonely, and both filled to the brim with energy; there’s an innate relationship that pulls at the heartstrings in surprising ways.
My favorite scene involves Briggs reading a story to Lilly as if she were his child. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I felt a tiny lump in my throat during that moment. Simplicity is sometimes all you need if your heart is in the right place. Dog has no interest in promoting patriotic propoganda or cheapening its sentimentality with cute doggy beats. Filmmakers Channing Tatum and Reid Carolin wear their hearts on their chest in one of my favorite animal movies in a long time.