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Sundance Film Review: ‘Red Dog: True Blue’

Variety logo Variety 1/24/2017 Eddie Cockrell
© Provided by Variety

Considering that the original “Red Dog” made a phenomenal $20.6 million at the Australian box office in 2011, winning a slew of awards before going on to become the best-selling domestic DVD of all time, a sequel was inevitable. Perhaps as a result of the death of the original Red Dog, Koko, in 2012, screenwriter Daniel Taplitz pitched the idea of an origin story to Stenders and producer Nelson Woss. The resulting film is built with the same sturdy, if somewhat obvious, template as its predecessor, following the outback adventures of a newly-acclimated city boy and his trusty Kelpie companion. Spots in the kids sidebars of the Sundance and Berlin fests ensures further exposure, and if the muscular Aussie box office since its Boxing Day debut is any indication, lightning could very well strike twice.

According to Outback folklore, there really was a Red Dog, and his plucky antics became the stuff of legend, subsequently codified in a 2001 book by British-born “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” author Louis de Bernieres. The Red Cloud Kelpie was known for roaming from town to town, adopting disparate people from all walks of life, and uniting them through loyalty and sheer force of personality. It’s a quintessential Aussie tale that clearly struck a chord with moviegoers.

Like the original, this prequel begins with a framing device. In 2011 Perth, hard-charging businessman dad Mick Carter (Jason Isaacs) reluctantly takes his two young boys Theo (Zen McGrath) and Nicholas (Winta McGrath) to see the original “Red Dog” at the urging of his wife Diane (Justine Clarke). The viewing triggers memories of his own childhood and his trusty, often flatulent, canine best mate.

Flash back to the late 1960s, where young Mick (Levi Miler), his family riven by death and institutionalization, is shipped from Sydney to the vast Pilbara region of north Western Australia. The final destination is the vast Warndurala cattle station, run with gruff efficiency by Mick’s crusty, taciturn Grandpa (Bryan Brown).

Once again, there’s a sizeable cast of eccentric outback characters: Asian cook Jimmy Umbrella (Key Chan), so-called because he hates the sun; guitar-strumming helicopter pilot and Vietnam vet Bill Stemple (Thomas Cocquerel); Mutt-and-Jeff stockmen brothers Little John (Syd Brisbane) and Big John (Steve Le Marquand); teenage Aboriginal jackaroo and budding activist Taylor Pete (Calen Tassone); and Taylor’s elders Durack (Kelton Pell) and Mrs. Abby (Josie Aec).

While chasing loose chickens in the wake of a cyclone (hey, that’s life in the outback), Mick finds a Kelpie puppy (Phoenix) caked with tinted mud that inspires the name Blue. The two become inseparable best mates and a year passes, highlighted by motorcycle hijinks, Mick’s obsession with Grandpa’s vinyl pressing of Peter and the Wolf, and a one-eyed horse named Willy who was struck by lightning and thus thinks he’s a bull.

Into this mix of testosterone and hard labor comes Betty Marble (Hanna Mangan Lawrence), a tutor brought up from Perth by Grandpa to ensure Mick’s long-distance education. She proves the catalyst for inevitable change at the cattle station, inspiring the grown-up Mick to later muse, “The good memories we have, we get to keep.”

As an original Boys Own adventure, the film succeeds in painting a vividly nostalgic, if necessarily episodic, picture of an old-fashioned European Australian outback experience of sturdy men in a hard land. Wisely, the filmmakers have woven in a subplot involving Aboriginal traditions and land rights issues which, along with Betty’s destabilizing presence, provide what modest narrative tension the film possesses.

Stenders has his cast play broadly but deftly; in particular, young Miller holds his own against Brown’s imposing persona. The boy’s chemistry with Phoenix is palpable, and each major cast member has a moment of his own. Industry vet John Jarratt, star of the “Wolf Creek” films, has a brief, unrecognizable turn as real-life local character Lang Hancock.

Worthy of note is the warm glow of cinematographer Geoffrey Hall’s visual palette, which shows the distinctive red-tinged soil of the Pilbara to distinctive effect. All other craft credits are fine, with Cezary Skubiszewski’s flavorful original score supplemented by shrewd use of such standards as Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and the Traveling Wilburys’ “End of the Line.”

The end credits feature some thank you’s by Phoenix and a dedication to Koko.

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