In Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, the legendary filmmaker looked at World War I through the eyes of a noble steed, and in the process created one of his best set pieces, as well as an oddly family-friendly war movie that grappled with the costs of war while holding back on the realism of something like Saving Private Ryan. Though little about the technical skill of Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero brings to mind Spielberg, it’s hard not to think of War Horse when the movie opens with a noble canine booking it across a particularly spare depiction of no-man’s-land, and proceeds to craft an even more kid-centric narrative around horrific armed conflict.
To position the creature eventually known as Stubby as an extremely pun-intended underdog, the movie opens with him as a stray, whose shiny coat and big adorable eyes don’t stop most citizens of New Haven, Connecticut, from speaking to him almost exclusively with the words “mutt” and “scram,” treating a cute (and surprisingly clean-looking!) dog as the world’s most hated vermin. When Robert Conroy (Logan Lerman) tosses Stubby a little food during a parade, the dog winds up following him to his base, hoping for more. He wins over various soldiers in training and they adopt him, and though Stubby is expected to stay at the base when his favorite guys ship out, he sneaks aboard their ship and travels with them to France.
He stays at Conroy’s side through some of World War I’s most conspicuously bloodless injuries, where scores of wounded soldiers just look kinda bummed out. Attempting to lift spirits is Conroy’s new friend and mentor Gaston Baptiste, who is such an American’s conception of a Frenchman that he guzzles wine, extols the virtues of cheese, and brings with him the faint sounds of accordion music as he speaks in the voice of Gérard Depardieu, all within his first few minutes on screen.
Though the animation of these humans is often cheap-looking, some of the settings look lush in their slightly sanitized way, and Stubby himself is lovable, as seen in his early confusion over being made to wear a collar and a leash. But while the dog stuff is cute, Stubby isn’t really portrayed as a fully cartoon canine, which is either an admirably realistic touch or a weirdly self-defeating one, depending on whether this movie is supposed to be consumed by any adults. Either way, the qualities that make Movie Stubby more like a “real” dog (albeit a particularly athletic and intuitive one) place a greater burden on Conroy to provide human perspective on a situation that a dog can’t really understand. The character attempts to meet this burden with reactions to the horrors of war, the beauty of Europe, the wisdom of Gaston, and Stubby’s remarkable heroism that range from “wow!” to “huh!”
Though the movie lasts only 85 minutes with credits (closer to 75 without), it still feels padded and papered over, with repeated forays into flat, stylized animation that looks like posters or ads come to life as narration from Robert’s sister Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter doing an American accent) offers some vague factoids about the war and “our boys.” Margaret’s explanations aren’t just limited to historical context. Instead of the movie showing the dog bringing the soldiers joy during training, Margaret narrates that when reading her brother’s letters, she loved hearing about all the joy the dog brought. After all, there’s nothing that will delight children like having a character’s unseen sister summarize a letter she received about a dog’s thrilling antics!
Though Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero will play in movie theaters, it seems narrowcasted at a slim demographic: kids who are mature enough to watch a movie with hails of gunfire and clouds of poison gas, but not old enough for War Horse (or, to step away from the kingdom of animal heroes, Wonder Woman). Some kid-targeted entertainments help teach younger audiences how to watch movies and absorb stories. Sgt. Stubby is an odd lesson in how some stories, even stories about world-changing conflicts, are just formless anecdotes stitched together by labored narration. But at least they’ll also learn the old cliché about the soldier talking about his big plans for after the war just before he gets killed.