Sniff, director Barry Stones second film about dogs, is like a Snausage: Its one delicious morsel wrapped inside another very different but equally tasty and intriguing one. Dog lovers are sure to devour it with gusto and lick their chops waiting for the next course.
Sniff is a dog documentary thats swathed in the cozy blanket of an odd but appealing fictional comedic storyline. Two somewhat beleaguered British actors, Neil (British star Neil Morrissey: Bob the Builder, Men Behaving Badly) and Richard (Richard Huw: The Four Minute Mile, Splitting Heirs) travel to San Francisco for what would be humiliating roles for actors who werent so down on their luck: Theyre to be dressed as dogs and act as concierges to well-heeled dogs and their people in the new Infinite Paws dog hotel. (I hope Stone has trademarked that name.)
The leap across the pond isnt as far-fetched as it seems. Theyve been hired by Neils former girlfriend, Juliette (Amanda Plummer: Pulp Fiction, The Fisher King), who owns the high-end boutique pooch hotel with her somewhat jealous husband, Derek (Maurice Godin: House, Monk, Working). The company Stone assembled pulls off the fictional part of the movie with aplomb. Plummer — Christopher Plummers daughter — really shines in her role as the quirky, dynamic entrepreneur who still isnt quite over Neil.
Neil and Richard decide that on their days off, theyre going to put together a documentary on dogs in San Francisco and other parts of the West Coast. You can almost hear echoes of a young Mickey Rooney chiming, Hey kids, lets put on a show!
This is where the hot dog meets the bun, and the fiction becomes the holder for the documentary the meat of Sniff.
Since Neil and Richard have different days off, they dont really collaborate much while filming their various segments about dogs. But this setup allows us to see them interacting with each other, describing their projects, kvetching, and still working like dogs on their days at the hotel.
The dogs they follow are treasures, and Stone’s background in cinematography makes most scenes visual gems. As good as the humans are in the movie, the canines steal the show. Heres how the directors synopsis describes some of Sniff’s real-life canine stars.
* Meet Mikey, a yellow Labrador retriever, who completes his training to become a working guide dog.
* Meet Gabby, a black Lab who is socialized at Guide Dogs but switches careers mid-stream to become a Search and Rescue Dog.
* Take a romp in the ocean with Zoe, a Jack Russell, at the Coronado Bay Surf Dog Competition.
* Run on the beach with Gus, a McNab herd-dog, who has taken to rounding up seagulls for want of a good sheep.
* Marvel at Retriever Harley as he and water-shy Rover tag-team ball retrieval from the Klamath River.
All the dogs are ridiculously appealing, and their stories are riveting. The parts about the search-and-rescue dogs are eye-opening and fascinating. Its enlightening watching these dogs some of whom didnt make the cut as guide dogs train to rescue people in disasters. We think of them as heroes, living to save lives. But to them, its just one great big joyous game. These dogs work hard, and they love their work so much that they dont even know theyre working. We humans could learn a lesson from them.
Youll want to have a Kleenex handy for some of the segments, particularly the guide dog graduation, and the poignant look at the man whose elderly dog is not long for this world.
One segment with the bird-chasing dog is wince-worthy, though, at least to me. I live two blocks from the beach in San Francisco, and my leash-free dog-walking has been severely curtailed by the presence of the snowy plover, a threatened bird species. Dogs are no longer allowed off leash on the beach for most of the year, when the birds are here, because theyre seen as potentially dangerous to the delicate plover population. Im not sure what species of birds cute Gus is chasing Im no bird watcher but some look kind of plover-ish to me. The people who would like to ban dogs from the beach entirely would love to get hold of this if plovers really are in the mix. Even if the birds are gulls, dogs shouldnt be chasing them. Its pretty stressful to the birds, and makes for bad PR in the dogs vs nature realm.
Other than these chase scenes and some scene transitions that could have benefited from someone who wasnt quite so enamored with “special effects,” the film is a walk in the park. Any dog lover worth his or her spots will enjoy it. Its great for families, too.
The film is available as a gala release DVD. Upcoming screenings include a benefit for the East Bay Humane Society in Berkeley on July 29, and a free screening to wrap up a Guide Dogs for the Blind event in San Rafael on July 31. Click here for details on these and future screenings.