The eccentric retro-charm and nationalistic pride of 2011’s Red Dog won over the Australian public, going on to break box office records and make over $20 million in local cinemas. Based on the stories documented by Nancy Gillespie and Louis de Bernières, it chronicled the legend of the “Pilbara Wanderer” with a fairly definitive conclusion.
So in a bizarre premise, the film begins in 2011 with busy dad Michael (Jason Isaacs) reluctantly taking his sons to see first film in the cinema, before telling his eldest the true story behind Red Dog. When he was just a wee lad (played by Levi Miller), Mick was forced to spend time in the country with his grandad (Bryan Brown). Following a storm, he discovers a blue-covered red dog he promptly names “Blue.” Mick continues telling the heartwarming story of how that dog nobody wanted grew up to be a friend to us all.
Except that it doesn’t spend much time on that doggy tale at all. Instead, Mick relates how his social isolation led him to fall in love with his tutor Betty (Hanna Mangan Lawrence), start a romantic rivalry with ranch hand, and inadvertently cause a bushfire after stealing a totem that is sacred to the local Aboriginal groups. The film might be set in the 1970s, but it feels for all the world that it was also written during the decade, carrying with it a cavalier attitude to cultural appropriation in the guise of being folksy.
Which makes it even more baffling that mining magnate and renowned racist Lang Hancock (look up his Wikipedia page under “Attitudes towards Aboriginal people“), played here by John Jarratt, turns up for a musical jam session with grandpa. It may have something to do with the fact that the film, like its predecessor, was partly funded by Rio Tinto and other mining concerns in the Pilbarra. In Red Dog, the happy-go-lucky miners were easy to forgive, but here the message feels more targeted and commercially invested.
The returning creative team of writer Daniel Taplitz and director Kriv Stenders fail to capture the magic of the first entry, but they do use cinematographer Geoffrey Hall’s knowledge of the landscape to capture the staggering crimson flatness of the Pilbara. Populating the landscape is a strange collection of characters, including another stereotype in Jimmy Umbrella (Kee Chan), an eccentric whose best friend is his eponymous canopy. Pan‘s Miller earnestly struggles with the meagre material, but it forced to carry far to much of the thin scripting.
The legend of the Red Dog is one that means different things to everyone, and the “tall tale” approach is part and parcel of folklore. However, with a clumsy pace that simply forgets the titular star for much of the slim running time, this is one film that has a bark louder than its bite.