It could do more for straycanines than Barack Obama, but Hotel For Dogs is nevertheless a Chihuahua-sized concept served up in a doggy bag of contrivances and shtick. Still, no one should bet against the DreamWorks family adventure at the B.O., as it features orphaned children taking care of orphaned dogs, a score that could be poured on pancakes and a kennel's worth of cute. It's a sure thing -- in theaters, on DVD, at birthday parties, in Christmas stockings. Once you feed it, it'll never go away.
In the three years since their parents died, Andi (Emma Roberts) and her younger brother, Bruce (Jake T. Austin), have been hiding their dog, Friday, from the various and sundry foster parents. For all his efforts, social worker Bernie (the always reliable Don Cheadle) can't seem to find the proper guardians for his two dog lovers. As the pic opens, Andi and Bruce are living with Lois and Carl Scudder (Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon), two ghastly rock 'n' roll wannabes who are dumber than dirt and clearly in the parent business for the money. Charles Dickens might have made them up.
Andi and Bruce have plenty of trouble and can't afford more, so when a mixup forces them to run from the police, they stumble into an abandoned hotel where several homeless mutts have already taken up residence. (Most of the film seems to have been shot in downtown Los Angeles.) What the heck, Andi decides: Since she and her brother are essentially homeless and family-less, why not create a home in the hotel and people it, so to speak, with derelict dogs?
Thankfully, helmer Thor Freudenthal doesn't hammer home the parallels between the siblings and the beasts they adopt into our by-now-dog-softened brains. After a pet-store owner (John Simmons) remarks that his customers only want puppies, 16-year-old Andi snorts, Tell me about it. But that's about as heavy as it gets.
The more pronounced aspect of the script -- by Jeff Lowell, Bob Schooley and Mark McCorkle, working from the book by Lois Duncan -- is the adversarial relationship that exists between all kids and all adults (with the exception of Bernie and his wife, played by Robinne Lee). Andi and Bruce have to make their own kind of home and their own kind of family, because the grown-up world isn't coming through.
Hotel for Dogs is a fantasy and looks like one: There isn't a landscape in the movie that doesn't appear computer-graphically candy-coated and populated with virtual people. All this techno-fun goes right in the hotel sequences, where Bruce gets to exercise his inner Rube Goldberg: Not only does he devise complicated feeding machines for the dogs and train them to use toilets (and a self-draining fire hydrant), but there are also treadmills to keep them fit, an automatic fetching machine, self-knocking doors that send the dogs into an aerobic frenzy and a room full of car doors set up so the pooches can hang their heads out the windows while a rear-projected film clip simulates a ride down a highway. It's not entirely ingenious, but it works.
The stickiness factor, as one might expect, sort of scampers off the charts eventually, as all the love of dogs and children is heaped upon the audience like a Dumpster full of Alpo. Though their characters are vile, Kudrow and Dillon provide at least a scoop of unpleasantness, and the early shots of a dog pound look like outtakes from an MSNBC prison series. But Hotel for Dogs is ultimately warm and furry, with a wet nose buried in gross receipts.
Production values are fine, although the cartoon quality of the visuals may put some viewers off.