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Kids, Canines Own 'Hotel'

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Guaranteed to provoke a sophisticated filmgoer's inner W.C. Fields, "Hotel for Dogs" may have a case of artistic mange, but it's commercially foolproof: The kids are cute, the dogs are cuter, the dogs outnumber the kids and the adult world is defeated by truth, justice and Don Cheadle, who apparently never heard Fields's prohibition about working with children or animals. Cheadle escapes with his career intact, if not necessarily his dignity.

This comedy, starring perfectly pleasant up-and-comer Emma Roberts (Julia's niece), is about kids, not parents. Andi (Roberts) and Bruce (Jake T. Austin) have been parentless for three years, smuggling their dog Friday from foster home to foster home, always getting evicted after infractions, violations or minor criminal acts. Their social worker Bernie (Cheadle) is so desperate that he has placed the kids with Lois and Carl Scudder (Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon), married rockers who appear to have more fleas than the entire four-legged cast.

Deprived of affection, guidance and decent nutrition, Andi and Bruce stumble on an abandoned hotel in downtown Los Angeles and decide to turn it into a home for unwanted pups.

For all the latent social criticism of "Hotel for Dogs," it's a candy-coated romp through death and abandonment. Like some grim "Peanuts" strip come to life, none of the young people in the film ever has anywhere to be, or anyone to answer to, outside of one another and the hotel, where Bruce rigs up automatic feeders, toilets (yes!) and a virtual amusement park for the growing number of dogs that wander into the place. The obvious questions of hygiene are answered in loving detail, and if you know kids who respond more positively the higher a movie's yuck factor, they'll be delirious by the end of "Hotel for Dogs."

On the upside, the movie could do something really positive for the cause of homeless pets: If audiences respond the way they should, dog shelters could be emptied in a week.

-- John Anderson

Hotel for Dogs PG, 100 minutes Contains thematic elements, language and crude humor. Area theaters.


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