[Screen It]

(2007) (Josh Hutcherson, Bruce Greenwood) (PG)

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Dramedy: A boy hopes he can keep the stray dog he's found and turn him into the mascot for the fire company his dad leads, unaware that the pooch is a missing Hollywood star.
Shane Fahey (JOSH HUTCHERSON) is a kid who doesn't think he's gotten a fair shake in life. His mother left him when he was two, his dad Connor (BRUCE GREENWOOD) is the captain of the local firehouse, and his uncle -- the previous leader -- perished in the line of duty the previous year.

While the other firefighters there -- Joe Musto (BILL NUNN), Lionel Bradford (SCOTCH ELLIS LORING), Pep Clemente (MAYTE GARCIA) and rookie Terence (TEDDY SEARS) -- have unofficially adopted Shane, he isn't happy. Accordingly, he often skips school, unlike classmate J.J. (HANNAH LOCHNER), daughter of Jessie Presley (CLAUDETTE MINK), the captain of a rival firehouse that's always on the scene of any fire before Connor's crew.

It then goes from bad to worse when former firefighter turned city manager Zachary Hayden (STEVEN CULP) informs Connor and his crew that their station is likely to be shuttered and their team split up. Things take a turn for the better, however, when a mutt -- "Dewey" -- they've rescued from a fire turns out to have quite the nose for firefighting. Soon, his heroics get the station some much-needed press -- thanks in part to businessman Corbin Sellars (MATT COOKE) -- and a reprieve from the chopping block.

Yet, while his dad focuses on what he believes is a string of arsons, Shane is completely unaware that Dewey is really Rexxx, the huge Hollywood dog star of films such as "Jurassic Bark." Following a parachuting stunt that went wrong, his trainer Trey Falcon (DASH MIHOK) and production assistant Liz Knowles (BREE TURNER) assumed the pampered star perished in the accident, not realizing he landed safely and eventually ended up with Shane.

From that point on, the boy becomes progressively attached to the dog -- just like everyone else at the firehouse -- not realizing he might be taken away from them at any moment.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
There's a very funny "Far Side" cartoon Gary Larsons did long ago featuring a "what the human says" and "what the dog hears" split panel cartoon where the only thing the pooch recognizes is the occasional uses of her name, while the rest is just a repeated series of "blah, blah, blah."

Of course, and as most any owner will attest, dogs appear to understand more than just their names. Many follow verbal, hand or other commands, meaning they're good in both service industries as well as the entertainment world. Both examples are used in "Firehouse Dog," a cute, if predictable and somewhat odd family picture that really can't decide what sort of film it wants to be.

On one hand -- uh, paw, sorry -- it's a standard-issue boy and his dog tale aimed at young kids, complete with the apparently requisite belching, farting, pooping and peeing jokes. On another, it's something of "Backdraft Lite," featuring a firefighting subplot about a serial arsonist, presumably designed to help flesh out the film's unnecessarily long 110-some minute runtime, and provide some meat for the adult in tow.

But it's also something of a spoof of Hollywood, its stars, and the mechanism that keeps both moving forward. It's with that approach that director Todd Holland -- working from a script by Claire-Dee Lim & Mike Werb & Michael Colleary -- starts the film. It appears there's a crisis on a movie set, as the pampered star won't come out of his trailer thanks to being reminded of his former flame jilting him.

We then discover that it's really Rexxx (a cute pooch played, as is oft the case in such films, by a number of look-alike canines), a movie mutt with a funny pompadour hairpiece. With a little motivation from his trainer/owner's associate, he's back in the game, but not before a movie flashback featuring his former lover romping on the beach with braided hair, looking like a canine version of Bo "10" Derek.

Kids won't get that visual joke, but many of their parents will, and it's just one of various related movie parody bits that at least give adults a fighting chance of not being bored out of their minds or put off by the doggy-based scatological material (such as a belch being called a "mouth fart").

The other involves the far more serious fire-fighting material, including talk of the protagonist's uncle perishing in a fire believed to have been set by the arsonist, as well as various related close calls and moments of potential peril. There's obviously nothing funny or light about such scenes, all of which gives the film that odd dichotomy where it's seemingly constantly battling itself about what sort of picture it wants to be.

Granted, films can and do contain both comedic and dramatic elements, but neither approach here gets the full, nine-alarm treatment, thus meaning most everything feels a bit shortchanged. Some are decent in their own right, but collectively they just don't always jive. That only adds to the battle between the goofy comedy and more serious moments, with neither winning the war nor really arriving at any sort of pleasing compromise.

Perhaps the bigger issue, however, at least for those over the age of 10 and certainly most every film critic, is that we've seen all of this before and thus know where everything is headed long before the fire alarm sounds and the various engines proceed on their various courses.

There's never a doubt that the dog will get the sullen boy out of his funk and help reestablish his relationship with his dad who's damaged in his own way. Likewise, it isn't hard to guess that the movie folks will come looking for the pooch and thus crush -- at least temporarily -- the boy's newfound optimism and joy. And when it comes to the villains' identity, even most dogs will have sniffed out the truth long before it's finally and formulaically revealed.

Josh Hutcherson occasionally hits the right notes as the about to be snapped out of his funk protagonist, but is otherwise hampered by his character's by-the-books structure, while Bruce Greenwood is good but is starting to feel too comfortable once again playing the concerned dad character. Bill Nunn leads the supporting characters who reside and work in the firehouse, and are present for much of the comedic attempts including a repeated gag about bad cooking, which eventually gets a rather unpleasant added ingredient.

However, the show really belongs to the various pooches playing the fish out of water actor who goes from Hollywood star to firefighting hero without missing a beat. Existing inside one of those ironic acting circles (dogs playing dogs who play dogs in the movies), the four-legged actors believably hit their marks, ranging from the physical stunts to being so gosh darn cute that you just want to squeeze the stuffing out of them.

If only the rest of the film were as appealing and complete a package. Existing as an odd amalgamation of juvenile, gross-out comedy and more serious stuff aimed at older kids and adults, "Firehouse Dog's" bark and bite are too muted to make it a classic of the boy and his dog sub-genre. It rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed April 2, 2007 / Posted April 4, 2007

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