Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes
Family drama
2019, 94 min., Color
Rated PG for brief language
Sony
1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer (contains spoilers)
Amazon link

Jack Russell terriers have been popular with Hollywood. Most famously there was Uggie, who starred in the 2011 Academy Award-winning picture The Artist. Before him, we saw Eddie on the sitcom Frazier, Skip in the film My Dog Skip, and a CGI-enhanced Milo in The Mask. And now there’s Dally, who, unlike previous Jack Russells, isn’t a solo act. She’s partnered with a miniature horse named Spanky (here’s a link to their 2018 performance at the Del Mar National Horse Show just north of San Diego).

Though Dally and Spanky aren’t listed in the credits and the animals may or may not be the actual Dally and Spanky, this family movie was inspired by their dog-and-pony show. And while too often “family” has meant sappily unwatchable, Adventures of Dally & Spanky isn’t half bad. For all its flaws (and there are many) you still end up liking it because, corny as they seem, as one announcer at a talent show remarks, you can’t not like an animal act, can you? And that’s what this is: an 84-minute animal act that begins like Air Bud and quickly turns into Sing.

There’s not much in the way of plotting, and what there is we’ve seen before. Seventeen-year-old Addy (Brenna D’Amico) is grappling with the loss of someone close to her, and it’s affecting her relationship with her mother, stepfather, and half-sister Ella (Reylynn Caster). When she inherits a miniature horse, though, it ends up being therapeutic. And when her half-sister’s dog takes a shine to her horse, it brings the half-sisters closer together as they train the animals side by side and prepare for competitions to help the family raise money to pay the bills and cover the added expenses of boarding a horse.

As if it’s not enough to have the first part of this feel like Air Bud with a pony instead of a golden retriever, the film then shifts gears so that watch the characters participating in the clichéd talent show to save the house, farm, whatever . . . not once, but twice.

The family dialogue is also pretty corny, with stepdad James (Timothy Hornor) and mother Gwen (Elaine Hendrix) getting stuck with some of the worst lines. But there are positive things going on here. The film models behavior for families dealing with loss, for siblings who have grown apart, and for family members who are trying to figure out how best to respond to someone in the household who’s going through a tough time regardless of the reason. In other words, beneath the corniness there’s something wise that this film has to say, and a warmth that makes you forgive the plotting and clichés.

Viewers who like to spot familiar faces will delight in recognizing country singer Trace Adkins as, well, a country singer, and seeing actress and Real Housewives of Beverly Hills regular Denise Richards turn up as the onstage host of one of the talent contests.

But the real stars are Dally and Spanky, whose stories are a little different from the film version. According to dallyandspanky.com (yes, they have their own website) Spanky was a two-year-old rescue that was both overweight and aggressive with other horses. Not exactly heartwarming family film material, right? Dally, meanwhile, was the runt of the litter, and both were trained by owner Francesca Carsen. Whether the animals are original or newly trained for the film, this dog-and-pony show is fetching . . . and who doesn’t like to see a couple of animals bring two sisters closer together?

This film is rated PG for brief language, but it was so brief that whatever it was zipped right past me, as it will youngsters. However, because there is a death that a character has to deal with, it might not be suitable for especially sensitive young ones. Then again, there’s death and loss in Disney movies, and there are coping lessons here that might last a lifetime.

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