Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero
pulls off the seemingly impossible task of covering a subject like World War I in a children's animated film, and doing so without shying away from the realities of war, while at the same time being sure not to go so far as to frighten the kids in the audience. We don't see a drop of blood in the film, but we do get to see many wounded, and even an entire village get threatened with poisonous mustard gas in one effectively eerie sequence. But the main attraction here is a little Boston terrier who became an Army mascot after he wandered onto a military base, and went on to become the most decorated and celebrated war dog in history.
The film is directed by Richard Lanai, a documentary filmmaker who came across the story of Stubby while he was researching a different project. He saw the story as a chance to work in a different film medium and to speak to a different kind of audience by making a kid's movie. One of the smartest decisions he has made is to not make Stubby the dog speak, despite this being an animated feature. He did this in order to preserve some historical accuracy. What we do get is the simple and true story of how in 1917, the little dog wandered into the Yale training grounds for the 102nd
Infantry, part of the New England-based 26th
“Yankee” Division. He quickly befriended one of the soldiers, a young man named Robert Conroy (voice by Logan Lerman), and became not just his companion, but a fellow recruit. He would participate in army drills along with Robert and the other soldiers, march alongside them, and even learned how to lift his front right paw in a salute when superior officers approached him.
Eventually, Conroy and his fellow soldiers were shipped off to France to help the weary soldiers there on the frontlines fight off the advancing German troops. Stubby managed to sneak aboard the ship bound for France, and when he was discovered, he was made an honorary soldier, and was even given his own dog tag. Stubby grew to be invaluable even on the battlefield, and he would chase off rats and other vermin from getting in the soldiers' food, learned how to alert others when a bomb or missile was approaching, and would comfort the wounded. Given his many heroic actions on the battlefield, he became the first dog to ever receive an Army rank, and was seen as a true hero in the eyes of many who knew him. All of this is told with brisk storytelling that covers all the facts, and allows us to get close to Stubby and his human companion, and enjoy the bond that they share. And despite the film only running around 80 minutes or so, it doesn't feel rushed or hurried. The best treat for the audience comes during the end credits, where we get to see photos of the real life Stubby and Robert Conroy.
Just like the recent Isle of Dogs
, this movie gets a lot of mileage out of the simple joy of seeing a human bonding with a dog. But the movie also works wonderfully as an entertaining history lesson for small children who may be budding enthusiasts about American history, and want to learn as much as they can. I imagine that the film will become very popular in schools as an early introduction to learning about World War I. The screenplay does a great job of suggesting the hardships that the soldiers went through, without getting too depressing. There's even a Narrator (voiced by Helena Bonham-Carter), who helps explain to the kids in the audience the everyday ordeals that the soldiers face, or sometimes helps explain what they are watching. The movie explains war without talking down to the audience, and is effective as a learning tool.
And while Sgt. Stubby himself is obviously the star of the show and certain to win the heart of anyone who watches this film, there is a very strong voice cast to tell the story. You have the unmistakable voice of Gerard Depardieu as Gaston, a French soldier who befriends both Robert and Stubby, and teaches them both how to survive in the trenches of the battlefield. There are also Robert's two human comrades in battle, the German-American Schroeder (Jim Pharr), who wants to prove that immigrants can fight for America as well, and Elmer (Jordan Beck), who at first kind of resents all the attention that the dog gets from the other soldiers and even commanding officers, but slowly begins to respect the little stray. The movie keeps it fairly simple with a very limited cast, but it's probably for the best, as it allows the filmmakers to focus on the relationship between Robert and Stubby.
Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero
uses bright animation and simple storytelling to tell an engaging war story to kids in an effective and educational way. I suspect accompanying adults will love hearing the story as well. By the time little Stubby is given a hero's welcome near the end of the film, it's almost impossible not to get a tiny bit choked up, and that really just shows how effective the film really is.