Earlier this year a studio called Fun Academy Motion Pictures released an animated film that unfortunately never caught on at the Box Office. In my area it was only released for about three weeks and I never got the chance to see it for myself. That movie was “Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero”. Based on a true story of America’s most decorated dog, “Sgt. Stubby” utilizes computer animation to bring to life an inspiring real-life tale of the bonds of man and canine even at times of war. This film caught my attention back when it was first released and since I didn’t get to see it first hand and this is an extremely slow week for me I decided to give it a look on home release. So was “Sgt. Stubby” worth the wait or a waste of time? Let’s find out. This is my review of “Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero” tells the real life story of a stray Staffordshire Bull Terrier named Stubby who sneaks his way onto a U.S. military training camp at Yale University. There he meets and bonds with U.S. Army soldier Robert Conroy (Logan Lerman) and becomes the unofficial mascot of the 102nd Infantry Regiment, 26th Infantry Division. When Conroy is sent off to fight in World War I Stubby joins his partner on the battlefield. Stubby, Conroy and their French ally Gaston (Gérard Depardieu) engage in numerous battles of WWI. Stubby becomes famous for sniffing out gas attacks, saving wounded soldiers from No Man’s Land and even apprehending a German infiltrator before becoming America’s most decorated canine. The story is narrated by Conroy’s sister Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter).
I’m actually very disappointed that “Sgt. Stubby” flew under the radar because it’s a very solid animated feature that I believe deserves more attention than it got. To start, for a small studio production “Sgt. Stubby” is well animated. It’s not the best we’ve seen, a fact I’ll touch on later, but the computer generated characters and scenery are fluid and well defined. I thought the use of color was really effective. The film is bright and cheery when the mood calls for it but also dark and dreary when in war time speaking to the different tones of each scenario. Honestly “Sgt. Stubby” looks like something made by a far more experienced studio which shows and that’s partially because it was made through a partnership with Mikros Image which brought to life the eye-catching style of “Captain Underpants” in 2017. The final product gives “Sgt. Stubby” the same visual charm of a straight to video feature with the smooth execution of a professionally done theatrical piece.
One of “Sgt. Stubby’s” best aspects though is its story which is based on the real-life chronicled exploits of the actual Stubby including recreating several known moments of his actual time in the war. “Sgt. Stubby” explores some very dark territory in a child friendly way exposing viewers to the harshness of war and the dangers of the battlefield. I was pleasantly surprised by this content. I can appreciate that the filmmakers trusted the young target audience to be mature enough to understand these truths without watering them down too much. It also doesn’t feel like a lot of embellishment or over dramatization takes place in the film and while that is also one of the movie’s biggest weaknesses, again ta topic for farther down, it does keep the story focused. It all kind of flows smoothly from one scene to the next letting the story and the characters speak for themselves and when the drama does pick up it feels like the writers took special care to create something entertaining without compromising the real-life story. With that said “Sgt. Stubby” does hit ALL the right marks, but it hits more than it misses in this regard.
I also thought the performances were solid. The entire voice cast feels like they’re into it and really enjoying being a part of this tale. Logan Lerman, Helena Bonham Carter, Gérard Depardieu and others make up a very small cast of characters but each one proves to be memorable in their own right with unique personalities, designs and stories. The voice work is spot on with high energy when the scene calls for it and poignant exchanges when a bit of soft humanity is required. Thankfully Stubby himself DOES NOT talk, but he still emotes making his relationship with the humans in the story all the more fun to experience as it feels more like a true blue portrayal of the bonds of man and canine rather than an attempt to make some easy cash with another adorable anthropomorphic pup.
There’s not a whole lot wrong with “Sgt. Stubby” other than the limits it puts on itself. The animation is not as high end as many films of today giving it that aforementioned B-movie direct-to-DVD vibe. As colorful and well animated as “Sgt. Stubby” is in its own right, compared to other works it doesn’t exactly reach for the stars in terms of its visuals. It gives us solid and well rendered backgrounds and characters but never really tries to up the ante. It’s as good as it needs to be and there are some creative design choices like the use of color but overall it’s still no Pixar film or even modern-day DreamWorks. A little more polish and creativity might have given “Sgt. Stubby” that little extra edge to stand out in a medium that demands more and more innovation with every new film.
While I did enjoy “Sgt. Stubby” I’ll also admit it didn’t hold my attention the entire film. I actually walked away for a couple minutes to refill my popcorn and came back having missed nothing. That said the film follows a formula and while it’s a formula that works it does keep the story free of surprises especially if you already know Stubby’s history. Many times the struggle with films based on real life people, or in this case animals, is that the story is limited so to get around this filmmakers often take creative license or exaggerate the drama “Sgt. Stubby” does neither which is noble to be sure and an aspect of the film I rather enjoyed, hell I even complimented it already in this review, but the sacrifice is the film is much more predictable and easier to follow. This works for the kids but offers little in the way of substance for adults who may be curious about this real life story. It felt like a glaring weakness especially when we have so many other animated options that feel more imaginative and well rounded with their stories. All the same I think I’d rather have this more grounded take on such a neat story than one that does too much to try and make it stand out the wrong way.
I guess when it comes down to it “Sgt. Stubby’s” biggest strengths are also its biggest weaknesses. It does more than enough to justify its own existence and very easily shines on its own, but when compared to every other animated feature it just feels like it settles for being everything it has to be without trying to be more. Still I loved the story, the animation was solid even if it’s not the best we’ve been lately, the voiceovers worked, Stubby himself is adorable and, most of all, I couldn’t help but appreciate the willingness of the filmmakers to allow the young viewers to experience the trials of WWI in a manner that provides a great and age appropriate introduction about the brutality of that war. It’s not often we see a perfectly serviceable movie like this that honors it’s inspiration more than embellishes it, especially one from a small studio. Could it have been better? Well, yeah in some ways. It could have been more interesting and engaging or more eye popping, but the filmmakers could have also completely missed the mark and overdone it. Instead they played it safe to do justice to the story and they succeeded. I guess when it comes down to it “Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero” is as fun and entertaining as you want it to be, but it’s certainly an animated feature worth more attention than it got.