I know a primary-school teacher who struggled to build a term around the Second World War. How can you teach about the most harrowing conflict in history to a group of ten- and eleven-year-olds, without reducing them to wallowing balls of tears and fears? Sgt. Stubby, the debut feature animation from Fun Academy Motion Pictures (which wants to provide “innovative educational entertainment”), tries to do exactly that for the First World War with a friendly dog called Stubby.
Sgt Stubby: An Unlikely Hero is based on the true story of a stray dog that was ingratiated into an American regiment and became their mascot (as well as a kind of canine soldier) in the French trenches. Private Robert Conroy (Logan Lerman) is training with the other soldiers in the parade grounds of Yale University, when Stubby comes in and befriends Conroy – following him all the way to France. Through Stubby and Conroy, and his sister’s fairytale voiceover (Helena Bonham Carter), we learn a great deal about the trench environment.
The target audience for this film appears to be very young, younger than ten and eleven – so the realities of blood, fear, death, and disease are skinned away entirely. You wonder if a child watching would know if anyone died at all during the war. Even the brief allusions to the unspoken horrors – via soldiers wearing gas-masks and the release of mustard gas on a French village – feel too much for a kid to fully comprehend.
However, the film succeeds in teaching children about trench conditions and the peoples involved in the fighting. As well as showing America’s involvement, starting in 1917, there’s also a soldier originally from Germany in the regiment fighting alongside them. There are some stereotypes here and there, particularly with regards to the French army, but the film has a nice (if sentimental) sense of comradeship throughout.
It’s a shame that the German side isn’t humanised more, even if director and co-writer Richard Lanni doesn’t hold them under an evil light. When discussing the First World War, there’s a kind of mutual respect between both sides – especially when you consider the Christmas truce in 1914 – to the point where it’s not “good” against “evil”. There are so many opportunities to sympathize with the other side of no man’s land, but Lanni’s direction seems tied down with our allies and presenting a soppy view of the American army.
This year marks 100 years since the end of the First World War. Saul Dibb marked the centenary with his bleak and beautiful Journey’s End (based on the R.C. Sheriff play) in February, and Peter Capaldi’s last hurrah as The Doctor was set among the trenches in a particularly poignant episode of Doctor Who. After those gut-punches, inflating the texts we read aloud at school (“WE WILL REMEMBER THEM”), Sgt Stubby: An Unlikely Hero is laughably pale by comparison. There are a few emotional moments, and it’s educational without being boring – but the question of how to teach kids about the horrors of war is still left hanging. Not even Stubby is able to answer that one.
Sgt Stubby: An Unlikely Hero is released in the UK on 10th August 2018