The premise of Hotel for Dogs seems foolproof: It s about a hotel for dogs! How cute is that? Soft sheepskin beds and bountiful bowls of kibble for all the four-legged guests. Say no more.
Unfortunately, that s all Hotel for Dogs is: a clever concept that quickly runs out of room to roam. Kids might be entertained by the canine antics, and certainly the film s ideas about loyalty and family are worthwhile for little ones to ponder. But even serious dog lovers among adults in the audience and that includes yours truly will be severely bored.
It s not that director Thor Freudenthal s film, inspired by the Lois Duncan children s book, sits up on its hind legs and shamelessly begs for approval; on the contrary, it performs a few tricks, then rolls over on its back and plays dead. (Sorry, had to go there, the metaphor was irresistible.)
Plucky Emma Roberts and precocious Jake T. Austin co-star as 16-year-old Andi and her younger brother, Bruce, who have been bouncing from foster home to foster home since their parents died. Now that they live with a pair of deluded, wannabe rock stars (an obnoxiously one-note Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon), they ve been forced to hide their resourceful and perpetually hungry Jack Russell terrier, Friday.
When the scruffy white pooch scampers off, and Andi and Bruce follow him into an abandoned downtown hotel, they find a 160-pound bull mastiff and an energetic Boston terrieralready living there. Suddenly, they get an idea: Why not turn the rundown building, which just happens to have retained its electricity and antique furniture, into a full-time home for pups who have nowhere else to go who are orphans just like them?
So they start rescuing furry friends all over town, much to the frustration of the mean local dog catchers. Then again, all the adults in Hotel for Dogs are cartoonishly antagonistic, except for the kids social worker (Don Cheadle) and his wife. (Freudenthal s vision of an unnamed downtown is too spiffed-up to ever be believably menacing.) They also get help in the supply department from a couple of teens who work at a nearby pet store: Dave (Johnny Simmons), who s attracted to Andi, and the flirty Heather (Kyla Pratt).
Bruce, the gadget guru, sets up some amusingly elaborate contraptions to entertain the guests and keep the place running smoothly: dinner bowls that rumble out on a conveyor belt, a door that knocks repeatedly to get the dogs riled up and give them some play time, even a car-door simulator that lets them pretend they re riding through the countryside, blissfully sticking their heads out the window.
But once you ve set all that up, where do you go from there? The script from Jeff Lowell and Bob Schooley & Mark Corkle runs out of steam once Hotel for Dogs runs through its various sight gags. Cheadle classes things up just by appearing on screen, but he s also stuck in a thankless role as the kindly voice of reason. And you don t need a canine s super sniffer to figure out the corny, contrived way he ll figure into the kids lives.