Explores the early events leading up to Red Dog's discovery on the road to Dampier, and his ultimate rise from ordinary dog to Australian legend.

3.5
A simple coming-of-age story that benefits from a great cast and moments of inspired craziness.

What could be cuter than Red Dog – the mutt who stole Australia’s heart in the 2011 crowd-pleaser? Red Puppy of course. And the idea of going back in time to the dog’s origin story also solves the problem of trying to create a franchise when your lead character (spoiler alert) died in the first film. Thus, this ‘prequel’ Red Dog: True Blue arrives from the same team who produced the original: producer Nelson Woss, writer Daniel Taplitz and director Kriv Stenders. The result is big, broad family-friendly fun; a good-looking but uneven story with moments of inspired craziness.

One of these scenes of delightful weirdness occurs right at the start of True Blue. The setting is modern-day Perth, the year 2011 to be precise. A stressed executive (Jason Isaacs) hurries home to relieve his wife (Justine Clarke) of child-minding duties. He’s reluctantly fulfilling his promise to take his son to the movies, and guess what’s playing. As the cheeky, rust-coloured face of a certain legendary kelpie fills the screen, tears well in the eyes of the hardened dad as he realises Red Dog was once his very own puppy – known in those days as ‘Blue’ because of the mud he’d been covered in when he was rescued from a cyclone.

This is a small role but inspired casting for anyone who remembers Isaacs from his dual roles as Captain Hook and Mr Darling in P.J. Hogan’s Peter Pan (2003). Again, the scary father is redeemed and softened, this time by remembering his dog, telling his son a bedtime story that takes us back to his childhood in 1968 when he was a lonely 11-year old boy (Levi Miller) sent to live on an isolated Pilbarra cattle station with his terse Grandpa (Bryan Brown). The dog was his first real friend and their adventures together frame the rest of the plot, such as it is.

Where the original film, based on Louis de Bernières’ book of the same name, focused playfully and knowingly on the somewhat mythical dog’s role in uniting a remote mining community, True Blue is a fairly simple coming-of-age story with a doggy sidekick and lashings of nationalistic nostalgia, aided by a soundtrack rich in twangy guitar and nostalgic pop rock. DOP Geoffrey Hall returns for the prequel but shoots this film more classically in widescreen anamorphic, all the better to capture the stunning Pilbara landscapes – red earth, stippled sunsets and magnificent rock formations.

"Amidst the isolation and the beauty, the boy gradually bonds with his tough grandfather, and in this role, Bryan Brown manages, as only he could, to pull off the line, ‘I’m a stubborn man in a hard land.’"

Amidst the isolation and the beauty, the boy gradually bonds with his tough grandfather, and in this role, Bryan Brown manages, as only he could, to pull off the line, ‘I’m a stubborn man in a hard land.’ Brown also shines in one of the film’s other crazy-brilliant scenes where he engages in an intense banjo duel with his visiting friend, the up-and-coming mining giant, Lang Hancock (a convincing John Jarratt).

Other subplots involve the boy’s crush on his pretty young tutor (Hanna Mangan Lawrence) and his romantic rivalry with the station’s handsome plane driver (Thomas Cocquerel). There’s a slightly odd boy’s own tale of a stolen Aboriginal relic and a possible curse that must be overcome (Kelton Pell and Calen Tassone are good in their roles as Indigenous stockmen). Land rights, the global cultural upheavals of ’68 and the foreshadowing of the mining boom are all lightly touched upon in a story that sometimes feels piecemeal but is always likeable. There’s even a couple of gay cattlemen on show if you look hard enough (Steve Le Marquand and Syd Brisbane). The dog, played by Phoenix, a relative of the original film’s star, Koko, watches on mischievously – his role confined to hijinks like stealing underwear off a clothesline or eating shaving cream. As the star of the film it feels like he should be doing more, and yet when it’s time to say goodbye, you’d have to have a hard heart not to be moved by the sight of those stubby little legs trotting down a dusty highway.

 

Watch the 'Red Dog: True Blue' trailer:

 

RELATED
Aussies in Sundance: 'Red Dog' prequel to feature in 2017 line-up
Australians are figuring in a second wave of Sundance announcements coming out of Park City, Utah.
Red Dog team to reunite for Blue Dog – and maybe Yellow Dog too
Red Dog: Kriv Stenders interview
SBS speaks to the director about his surprising new film as it debuts at the Berlin Film Festival.