Red Dog: True Blue (2016)

Every legend has a beginning

It’s 2011. Michael Carter (Jason Isaacs) is a white-collar workaholic and father of two young boys, Nicholas (Winta McGrath) and Theo (Zen McGrath), who desperately yearn for a pet dog, much to their dad’s intense disapproval. At the behest of his wife Diane (Justine Clarke), Michael reluctantly takes his sons to see the film Red Dog (2011), which, as much as he tries to deny, moves him to tears. After some prodding from Theo, Michael reveals that the movie they just saw was based on his own experience with a dog, when he lived in outback Australia.

Mr. Miller's all set for his next big role!
Mr. Miller’s all set for his next big role!

Spanning just over a year in the late ’60s in Pilbara, Western Australia, we come to understand the growing pains of a ten-year-old Michael (Levi Miller), as he lives with his gruff grandfather (Bryan Brown) and the small idiosyncratic community around his cattle station — we meet resident ‘hunk,’ helicopter pilot Bill Stemple (Thomas Cocquerel), slighter older Aboriginal stockman Taylor Pete (Calen Tassone) and Michael’s first crush, Betty (Hanna Mangan Lawrence), his tutor.

When the original Red Dog was released in 2011, a lot of people (including myself), found themselves pleasantly surprised by the Aussie family flick, with Red Dog becoming one of those little films that could. With a strong advertising campaign and positive word-of-mouth to back it up, it became the highest grossing Australian film of that year (in just 11 days), going on to rack up an outstanding $21 million (putting it in the top ten highest grossing Aussie films of all time), receiving a bunch of nominations for a decent swag of awards including Best Film at the AACTAs, which it won.

Not surprisingly, the temptation to make a follow-up was both promising and daunting, with returning director Kriv Stenders working on a slew of other projects in the meantime — the odd hitman comedy Kill Me Three Times (2014), starring Simon Pegg, and the acclaimed miniseries The Principal (2015).

Hot diggity dog!
Hot diggity dog!

I’m happy to report that if there had to be another Red Dog, then at least this is a welcome and fresh approach to what could’ve very easily have been a mindless ‘Son of Red Dog’ type sequel, complete with an exact replica of the original characters and story. Instead, Stenders and returning writer Daniel Taplitz, do something unusual by acknowledging the existence of the initial film and its effect on audiences, as well as that story’s multiple interpretations of the central canine, which created the ‘legend.’

True Blue then goes onto reveal the ‘real story,’ which can certainly be viewed on its own or complement the other flick. Although there are some holes in this framework — Michael’s apparent hatred of dogs, for instance, or his lack of knowledge of a film based upon his own past pet — it’s a novel take nonetheless. It’s similar to the way In the Heart of the Sea (2015) weaved fact and fiction to tell how the epic tale Moby-Dick came to be. I should say, that while the Red Dog actually existed and inspired the two films, only the first was based on true stories.

What’s also shifted is the target audience — despite its appearance, the original was very much a mature family friendly film, whereas True Blue is aimed straight at the 8 to 11 year old bracket with its wide-eyed wandering and often-effective physical comedy. The strangest shift, though, is how unimportant the dog actually is to the narrative — rarely affecting the events, the titular doggy mostly hanging around and chiming in on occasion. In short, what we basically have is a straightforward coming-of-age story, which just happens to have a dog in it. That aspect is a bit odd — surely more dog would’ve been the way to go?

'You're still a cowboy. Become a cow-man and then we'll talk.'
‘You’re still a cowboy. Become a cow-man and then we’ll talk.’

Narratively, it’s a very linear affair with moments rather than arcs, which kind of leaves the experience rather flat. The first film was actually a really well rendered dissection of legend building as each ‘owner’ had their own tale to tell, this creating a multi-faceted take on the loveable pooch, lending itself very naturally to an episodic feel. Here, despite a few efforts at creating different strands, namely that of a spooky Aboriginal cave and the love interest in Betty, these don’t seem to add up to a lot — we don’t get the sense that Michael has learnt any hard lessons that will stay with him for life. The idea that, as an adult, he’s learnt to bury his past is clearly available for development, but is never taken up.

Despite what I’ve said though, it’s not all bad news with the film scurrying at a decent pace and short length adding up to a reasonable 88-minute distraction. The funniest moments are all headed up by the titular dog — be it a howling sing-along with an unappreciative Bill or a well-timed fart joke — while the most dramatic parts tend to stem from the land itself — an intense storm literally shakes up the community for one. The obligatory romantic triangle between Betty, Bill and Michael doesn’t quite hit the mark, mainly because both Betty and Bill seem so elsewhere in their thoughts to care terribly much about each other — director Stenders must’ve been watching the sunset rather than the performances here.

From dust till dawn
From dust till dawn

On the acting side, Levi Miller, Pan (2015), once again, shines at the forefront, taking on ‘golly-gosh!’ type naivety and heartfelt moments with gusto. I can’t wait to see Miller grow into more mature dramatic roles and see what he can really do there. Bryan Brown, Australia (2008), is well, Bryan Brown, which is just fine and dependable, while the superb English actor Jason Isaacs, Peter Pan (2003), gets a rather thankless ‘role’ (more like an extended cameo) narrating the whole story to an eager Zen McGrath, Aloft (2014). Thrown in for good measure is a cameo by the iconic John Jarratt, Rogue (2007), playing real-life iron ore icon Lang Hancock to a tee.

For fans of the much-loved Red Dog, True Blue will make for a breezy time, but for the kids especially, the flick gives them a chance to see something alternative, live-action and local, compared to the heavy Boxing Day competition with American CGI movies in Disney’s Moana (2016) and Universal’s Sing (2016), destined to duke it out.

Will this dog have its day?

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Steve Ramsie

Red Dog: True Blue is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia