Sgt. Stubby doesn’t follow the playbook of most American-produced cg features. It’s a family-oriented historical war movie that stars a dog who doesn’t speak and isn’t as heavily anthropomorphized as most cg cartoons.
What is “Sgt. Stubby”
Set against the backdrop of America’s entry into World War I, the film is based on the true story of the unbreakable bond between a stray dog and a young soldier.
With a slim running time (78 minutes without credits), the budget-conscious production (around $25 million according to the filmmakers) was animated using Maya at Technicolor-owned Mikros Image Animation. Story and some visual development was handled out of Mikros’ studio in Paris, and animation was produced out of Mikros’ Montreal, Canada studio, where The Little Prince and Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie were also produced.
Per the official synopsis:
With the “War to End All Wars” looming, the life of Army “doughboy” Robert Conroy (Logan Lerman) is forever changed when a little stray dog with a stubby tail wanders into training camp in New Haven, Conn. Conroy gives his new friend a meal, a name, a family and a chance to embark on an adventure that would define a century.
Narrated by Robert’s sister Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter), Stubby and his new best friend quickly find themselves in the trenches of France. Befriended by French poilu Soldier Gaston Baptiste (Gérard Depardieu), Stubby accompanies the duo along their epic journey through harsh conditions and incredible acts of courage.
As combat rages around them, Stubby keeps the trenches vermin-free, alerts his comrades-in-arms of incoming attacks, rescues the wounded in No Man’s Land and even catches a German spy! Back home, his exploits make the front pages of newspapers across the country and steal the heart of the nation.
The idea to make a film about Stubby came from businessman-turned-historical filmmaker Richard Lanni, who is also the founder of Fun Academy Media Group, Ltd. (formerly Labyrinth Media & Publishing), operating from his homes in Cork, Ireland, and Normandy, France, with production and distribution offices headquartered in Columbus, Georgia. Lanni previously directed the WWII series The American Road to Victory, which holds the distinction of being the most aired WWII series of all time on American public television with over 6,000 broadcasts since 2012.
Lanni has also been a battlefield tour guide and media production partner with the National Infantry Museum Foundation at Fort Benning, Georgia. It was during research for a WWI series that he discovered the story of Sgt. Stubby. “Around the world, World War I is better remembered,” said Lanni in the film’s production notes. “In some areas of France, it’s perhaps still more significant today than the second World War. But in the U.S., it’s a long-forgotten war and period of American history. My goal was to find real stories that embodied the American experience at that time … Real characters that modern audiences, especially kids, could relate to. And that’s where I found Stubby.”
Adds the film’s assistant producer and voice actor Jordan Beck, “It’s important to remember that, at the time of America’s declaration of war in 1917, there wasn’t a strong sense of national identity. For the first time, the young men and women of our country – including an immigrant population from around the world – were mustered into service under one flag, in one uniform and sent overseas to fight a war on behalf of our allies.”
Sgt. Stubby launched on 1,685 screens in the U.S. and Canada on Friday, April 13, 2018. Plans for foreign theatrical rollout haven’t been announced at this time.
Box Office Potential
The film launched in 15th place on its first day of release, grossing an estimated $350,000 from 1,685 theaters. It looks to be headed for an weekend total of around $1 million. To promote the film, Fun Academy had worked to create a partnership network with dozens of animal rescue and service dog groups and communities throughout the United States. “These animal organizations are in the trenches every day, helping dogs just like Stubby find a home and we want to give back to them,” said Jacy Jenkins, director of partnerships and outreach for Fun Academy. The project also received the official endorsement of the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission, the National Infantry Museum Foundation, and La Mission du Centenaire (the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission’s French counterpart).
The film hasn’t been reviewed by the majority of film critics, but the 20 reviews aggregated so far on Rotten Tomatoes have been 90% positive.
Joe Leydon from Variety pointed out that the stylistic choices made for the film often work in its favor: “[Director Richard] Lanni and co-scriptwriter Mike Stokey II wisely avoid the temptation to make Stubby unduly anthropomorphic; neither he nor any other animal in the film can speak, wink or indicate anything other than, well, animal instincts. (One notable exception: Stubby learns how to salute, and it serves him well.) Indeed, despite the stylized appearance of the human characters in the bland but serviceable animation, there is a distinct air of realism throughout Sgt. Stubby that often enhances the suspense, especially in the thrilling sequence that has Stubby racing to alert French civilians as a cloud of mustard gas wafts into their village.”
Inkoo Kang in The Wrap praised the film’s subtle approach to storytelling: “Exercising welcome restraint (especially for a children’s movie), Lanni never states the biggest lesson to be learned from Stubby’s story: That when talent, loyalty, and friendship are nurtured, there’s no telling what miracles may arise. Nothing is more dehumanizing than war, and it was crucial for soldiers in the trenches to feel a connection to their own humanity through a dog’s companionship — and wise of Conroy’s higher-ups to permit their troops the comfort that Stubby represented.”
Critics were divided, however, on how the film depicts war. Bruce DeMara in The Toronto Star said that the film pandered to young kids too much and sanitized the grim reality of war: “But the Western Front of the War to End All Wars was among the grimmest in history and that is not at all reflected in the animation, which shows tidy, well-constructed trenches with a few inoffensive rats. Refusing to acknowledge that reality sells the audience short. Similarly, when Sergeant Stubby and a U.S. soldier are badly wounded, there isn’t a scratch on them let alone a hint of red stuff.”
Susan Wloszczyna of RogerEbert.com was more forgiving, and felt that the family-friendly film adequately captured the suspense of war without showing the gore: “No one is going to mistake Sgt. Stubby for Paths of Glory or even War Horse, but documentary filmmaker Robert Lanni manages to suggest the dangers of combat without shedding a drop of blood or showing a wound. An eerie scene where yellow-greenish cloud of mustard gas envelopes a town like a deadly fog is a standout.”
Sgt. Stubby also received an “A” Cinemascore from audiences who have seen the film this weekend.
Production company: Fun Academy Motion Pictures
Distributor: Fun Academy Motion Pictures
Animation studio: Technicolor and Mikros Animation, Toutenkartoon Canada (2d animation)
Directed by: Richard Lanni
Written by: Richard Lanni, Mike Stokey II
Produced by: Laurent Rodon, Emily Cantrill
Executive Produced by: Frank Lumpkin III, Tom Sheehan, Richard Lanni
Cast: Logan Lerman, Helena Bonham Carter, Gérard Depardieu
Original Score by: Patrick Doyle
Editor: Mark Solomon
Head of story: Eric ‘Bibo’ Bergeron
Art direction: Pierre-Nicolas Klepper-Bayle, Jean-Noel Le Moal
Production designer: Céline Desrumaux
Heads of animation: Marc-Andre Baron, Philippe Zerounian
CG supervisor: Stephane Stoll
2D sequence director: Jordan Beck