Red Dog: True Blue review – a splashy, sun-drenched slice of Australiana

From its sweetly self-referential start, the Red Dog prequel offers a very rewarding journey – with plenty of dem feels

• Boxing Day films in Australia: our pick of the festive releases

The pooch gets meta! Kriv Stenders’ Red Dog prequel, Red Dog: True Blue, begins in 2011 – the year of the original film’s release – in central Perth on a Friday afternoon. Desk jockey Mick (Jason Isaacs) bolts home from the office to spend the evening with his sons Theo (Zen McGrath) and Nicholas (Winta McGrath).

In the car on the way to the movies, the kids mount a case to get a dog. Dad demurs: they smell; they pee; they get sick; they die, he says. When the group venture inside the cinema, the audience – as in us, the real-life audience – catch a glimpse of the movie they’re watching. And hey, it’s Red Dog!

Mick finds himself blubbery by all dem feels, later passing it off as a case of hay fever. When he tucks Theo into bed, after a moment’s contemplative silence, he says: “Blue.”

Huh? Mick goes on. The dog’s name wasn’t Red but Blue, he explains – and he knows, because it was his dog. Cue The Princess Bride-esque bedside flashback narrative, where a voice from the present will recount a possibly rose-tinted past.

What a sweet framing device: a lovely bit of self-reference and self-mythologising, from the director, Stenders and the screenwriter, Daniel Taplitz. The intro is less a potted summary of the predecessor than a means to broaden out the second instalment, so it has a greater chance of standing, self-contained, on its own four legs.

Presumably there’s an element of targeting international audiences who haven’t seen the original. For them the beautifully shot and richly coloured True Blue (the cinematographer is Geoffrey Hall, whose credits include Chopper) must feel a little like watching a kind of ripe, exotic, sun-drenched fruit.

Early signs suggests the approach probably worked – Red Dog: True Blue is on the bill at next year’s Sundance and Berlin film festivals, a rare feat for an Australian family flick.

Kelton Pell and Calen Tassone
Kelton Pell and Calen Tassone. Photograph: Roadshow Entertainment

The story rewinds to 1968, when then 11-year-old Mick (Levi Miller) has just lost his father. His mother has been institutionalised: the first suggestion that Stenders and Taplitz’s approach will, like the original, dab the canvas with light and dark brush strokes.

Along these lines, on Mick’s new home – a Pilbara cattle station owned by Grandpa (Bryan Brown) – they also give us a blind-in-one-eye horse that thinks it’s a bull and what might be an ill-tempered Aboriginal spirit in a cave. For the latter the film-makers consulted with Indigenous communities through the Ngarluma Aboriginal Corporation and the Ngarluma Yindjibarndi Foundation.

Most importantly, the property also accommodates Mick’s best buddy: a red dog (played by Phoenix) he discovers alone and covered in blue paint, thus “Blue”. The pair get up to shits-and-giggles shenanigans that will particularly appeal to the younger crowd, including a muffin and jam heist and a caper involving the horse and a rubber ducky.

The latter scene is inventively (and a little oddly) spliced into a musical sequence, with Grandpa taking part in a banjo-pickin’ hoedown with – of all people – Lang Hancock, who arrives in the form of a virtually unrecognisable John Jarrett. The film would have scored extra points for historical accuracy had Hancock, in between sips of whisky with Gramps, spat out a nasty, racist tirade against the First Australians but hey – this is a family movie, partly funded by mining companies.

A wide-ranging interview with Red Dog star Phoenix

When Grandpa decides to home-school Mick, a young tutor, Betty Marble (Hanna Mangan Lawrence) arrives to open the course book. She proves distracting to Mick, so her placement is either a stroke of genius from the old dog (Grandpa, not the kelpie) or something of a miscalculation.

True Blue’s young-boy-with-a-crush, feelings-not-reciprocated, isolated-in-rural-community elements conjure memories of The Year My Voice Broke. And the protagonist’s discovery of a creepy Aboriginal myth hearken to the director Brian Trenchard Smith’s 1986 family movie Frog Dreaming.

Stenders captures a splashy sense of Australia without resorting to twee or hackneyed stereotypes. It’s good to see diversity in the casting, including the presence of an Aboriginal jackaroo and aspiring activist, Taylor Pete (Calen Tassone), and Grandpa’s slightly eccentric, umbrella-wielding cook, Jimmy (Kee Chan). Jimmy is of Asian heritage but there’s no racial puns or dishes of rice served: this is blind casting.

Hanna Mangan-Lawrence and Thomas Cocquerel
Hanna Mangan-Lawrence and Thomas Cocquerel. Photograph: Roadshow Entertainment

Fire, smoke, drama and spectacle rouse Red Dog: True Blue into a climactic arch. The coming-of-age elements pull it into a softer, less contrived and more affecting space, which is ultimately where this very rewarding journey resides.

There’s something about vision of a dog running desperately after its master – being whooshed away in a vehicle, looking at it helplessly trying to catch up, and tears, oh, the tears – that, gor blimey, gets you every time. Or as an older Mick might say, another case of hay fever.

• Red Dog: True Blue is out in Australia on Boxing Day


Luke Buckmaster

The GuardianTramp

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