When I was seven years old, the relatively new Disney Channel came out with a made-for-TV movie called Chips, the War Dog, about a German Shepherd who served in WWII alongside human companions. I loved the movie so much that when I finally got my first dog later that year (a beagle mix), I named it Chips. It was with that bit of nostalgia in mind that I became absolutely giddy over a silly children’s movie called Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero, which came out this past weekend. A perfect distraction for kids, this movie is warm-hearted, sweetly funny, oddly poignant, and unceasingly adorable.
Based on the adventures of the real-life Sgt. Stubby, a Boston terrier who wandered his way into a U.S. Army regiment in World War I, this film offers something unique, in that it uses its pint-sized avatar to give kids an age-appropriate rendering of “The War to End All Wars,” a conflict that is completely foreign to them, as only a handful of people who fought that war still walk this Earth.
Using model dogs and sound effects, the film immediately draws in the tiny target audience by keeping a good chunk of the action at Stubby’s level, basically ankle high to the rest of us. By doing so, the kids not only get the dog’s perspective, but it also makes things relevant to them by angling up the view, much like the way these very kids see the world.
Stubby is a stray, and he goes through the similar “mangy mutt” tropes any animated stray would. When a young Doughboy named Robert Conroy (The Perks of Being a Wallflower‘s Logan Lerman) tosses him a biscuit while passing in a parade, Stubby follows him to the campus of Yale University, where his unit is training before heading to the trenches in France. The pup’s enthusiasm and attention to detail instantly warms him to those in command, and he basically becomes the company mascot. After being trained to salute by Conroy (this actually happened, according to reports), he becomes part of the unit, and sneaks onto the boat taking Conroy and his comrades overseas (that part didn’t happen – Conroy just smuggled him in his pack, but it makes for a nice, fun stealth scene).
Narrated by Conroy’s sister, Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter), Stubby actively helps out the war effort in a number of ways. He can hear missiles approaching before humans and warns them. His sensitive nose is able to sniff out gas attacks. He finds wounded soldiers buried in the bunkers and stranded in No Man’s Land. He even exposes a German spy by biting him on the butt! Again, this really happened! Eventually, Stubby is given the honorary rank of Sergeant, and he goes on to become the most decorated dog in the history of American warfare.
Meanwhile, Conroy himself is seeing the world in new, and sometimes uncomfortable ways. He is befriended by a French officer named Gaston (Gérard Depardieu), who thinks of his kinship with Conroy and Stubby as the Three Musketeers. He develops a rapport with two fellow soldiers, one of whom is German, who believes he must fight back against the wrongs of his government. He even sees the humanity in the enemy, as the captured spy looks a lot like him.
This isn’t a perfect movie, even by kiddie film standards. For the human characters, the animation quality is almost entry-level, like something you’d see on Nick Jr. 10 years ago. Also, for a movie about one of the bloodiest conflicts in world history, the film is remarkably bloodless. I understand it’s for kids, but people get wounded with no visible wounds, including Stubby, and the one death in the film happens completely off screen, and is never explicitly stated. Also, again, given that this is a war, there is surprisingly no real conflict going on in the foreground, apart from a couple of snide remarks about Stubby from military cooks here and there.
That said, though, there’s a lot to love about these same elements when presented in a larger context. For example, while the human character design is severely lacking, Stubby’s design is absolutely perfect, with his expressions shining through, whether he’s excited or whimpering (and oh my God that whimper is so adorable). Also, there are 2D-style animated maps that show the progression of the war while Helena Bonham Carter narrates that are actually quite well done. Similarly, the background scenery is superb, an ironic reminder of the beauty of Europe mere miles from the front lines.
And while the war itself is extremely sanitized for the pre-schoolers in the audience, the film doesn’t let the human cost of war go unnoticed. Loss is felt by all at one point or another. And more importantly, the film gets across a patriotic message about self sacrifice and what it means to be American, without pandering or descending into jingoism. The filmmakers wanted to be as accurate as possible, which is why Stubby’s exploits in war are things that really happened, including a meetup with George S. Patton late in the film (Patton himself would pose for photos with the dog after the war ended).
There’s just an amazing degree of care and detail to make this film as accessible as possible as an historical entry point for kids to learn about WWI. Hopefully the kids are as curious as I was watching this as a man in his mid-30s. Had a movie like this come out when I was that young, I’d have been overjoyed. If I were a child of the internet age when this movie came out, I’d have immediately rushed home to find out as much as possible about the real Stubby, and marvel about how much the movie got right.
This is an absolutely perfect movie to take your kids to this weekend, or any time you need to get out of the house. Hell, pay the babysitter to take the kids while you have some alone time. And when the film comes out on DVD in a few months, it won’t seem like torture to watch it with them over and over again.
I miss Chips.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What was your first dog’s name? Would a dog from the Vietnam War be extra grizzled because he’s seen too much? Let me know!