Directed and written by the same people who directed and wrote the original 2011 movie, "Red Dog" – Kriv Stenders and Daniel Taplitz respectively – this new outing for Red Dog is actually a prequel to the original story. It basically tells the story of Red Dog before he became famous. However, unlike the original movie which was based on a novel by Louis de Bernieres which, in turn, was loosely based on the true story of the real Red Dog, this 2016 prequel is a completely fictitious yarn. But it's a highly enjoyable one, and I liked it greatly.
Because the story is set many years – the late 1960s – before the events of the 2011 film, there is an all-new cast of characters and players. Also, sadly, a new red dog: the original lovable mutt, Koko, from the first film, died several years ago. His cute replacement, Phoenix, is happily an excellent doggy performer who will win many hearts.
The central character is Mick, played as a youngster by Levi Miller, and as an adult by English actor Jason Isaacs. The adult Mick (Michael) has a wife and young son. Young son wants a dog but Michael is doubtful. Then, one day, they go to the movies and see "Red Dog". In the middle of actual scenes from the original film, Michael's eyes grow misty and he sheds a tear or two. Back home, he tells his young son that years ago he once knew Red Dog. The rest of the film is basically an extended flashback as Michael (Mick) tells his son the story of young Mick and Red Dog.
Owing to family difficulties, the young Mick is sent to live with his grandfather (played by Bryan Brown) on a remote cattle station in the Pilbara region of WA. There he meets various outback characters: Jimmy Umbrella, the Chinese cook (Kee Chan); Taylor Pete, an aboriginal stockman (Calen Tassone); Betty (Hanna Mangan lawrence), the cute, comely governess hired to teach Mick; and Lang Hancock (John Jarratt), just starting out as a mining magnate.
Then a cyclone hits the station. While cleaning up the debris afterwards, young Mick finds a little, mud-covered puppy stranded in a tree. He names the pup "Blue" because of the mud, but only discovers he is red after rinsing him off. Boy and pup bond instantly and go on to share many adventures, such as fighting bushfires and investigating local aboriginal legends. There is also a romantic element: Mick, although several years younger than Betty, falls for her, but he has no chance against an older rival. But then comes The Crisis – Mick's family eventually want him to go to school back in the Big Smoke, and the dog can't go with him. Grandpa promises to look after Blue while Mick is away. But will boy leave dog? Will dog stay with grandpa once boy goes? This is where the Kleenex tissues become handy.
Young Levi Miller is good as the young Mick, though some might think his accent is a bit too English and "plummy" for an Aussie kid. Bryan Brown as Grandpa is suitably gruff and country-man practical, though basically kindly and understanding of his grandson. I especially liked John Jarratt in his cameo as a banjo-strumming Lang Hancock – watch out for the scene where he and Bryan Brown do a "duelling banjos" sequence, a la "Deliverance". (Did Lang plays the banjo in real life, I wonder?) Hanna Mangan Lawrence is cute and sexy as Betty, the young governess: I only wish I'd had a home governess like her when I was that age! As for Phoenix, the young Red Dog, well, dogs can never act badly, can they?
If the film has one fault, it is that it crams too many themes into its economical one and a half hours. The coming-of-age, moving-on-to-new-things theme; the aboriginal Dreaming legends; aboriginal land rights (very briefly); teenage sexuality; the (then) nascent mining boom; boy/dog bonding; the hardships of life in the outback; dysfunctional families … Although the charm of the boy/dog story shines through, it tends to be overshadowed by the other sub-plots and a suspicion of political correctness. The 2011 movie concentrated strongly on Red Dog and his effect on the people he met; the 2016 prequel tries to cover a lot more bases. The new film is charming and enjoyable from start to finish, but the original probably has more emotional impact.
Direction is good, the dialogue both funny and sad, the minor characters all add interest and depth to the story, while the photography of the WA outback is superb. One comment I read on the Internet complained that the landscape's colours had been too digitally enhanced – maybe true, but it sure makes for a beautiful-looking film. According to another Internet comment, a third "red dog" movie may be on the way: apparently the writers and moviemakers see the "red dog" story as a trilogy. I, for one, would go and see a "Red Dog 3" if the quality of the first two can be maintained.
If you are an animal lover, you will almost certainly warm to this movie. Strongly recommended.
My star rating (out of five): * * * * 1/4