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10 Pup idols: Dogs on film

BY Mark Reynolds

1st Jan 2015 Film & TV

10 Pup idols: Dogs on film

Taking our lead (ahem) from the remarkable canine revenge movie White God, out now in cinemas starring lookalikes Luke and Body as leader of mutts Hagen, we’ve pulled together our favourite films starring screen dogs and doggesses.

Despite the old adage about never working with kids or animals, family movies featuring man’s best friend have a long and for the most part noble history, from silent-era veteran Rin Tin Tin and Toto in The Wizard of Oz (real name Terry), to Benji (Higgins) and the patchy (not in a good way) CGI Scooby-Doo. If we’d embraced TV, Moose the Jack Russell who played Eddie in Frazier for seven seasons (receiving more fan mail than his human counterparts) would be top dog. It’s an incomplete list, so do tell us who you’d pick as your own prize pooch. 

Recent research has shown that our preference for certain dog breeds is directly affected by their portrayal on screen. So which of these four-legged furballs takes your fancy?


As Good As It Gets (1997)

Image source: Sineterapi

Perky Brussels Griffon Jill the Dog vies with Jack Nicholson as the star of this pedigree comedy about a misanthropic obsessive-compulsive curmudgeon who is taught a life lesson. Undaunted by being cast as male dog Verdell, Jill wins over Nicholson’s romantic novelist Melvin Udall, who only then comes to understand the power of meaningful sentimentality. Jill went on to make only one more movie, and is woefully underused in the direct-to-DVD generational comedy Carolina (2003) in which Julia Stiles and Shirley McClaine share top billing. Opposite Nicholson, Jill was covered by stand-ins Billy, Debbie, Parfait, Sprout and Timer, but kept the key close-up work for herself. Good girl.


The Incredible Journey (1963)


Muffy the Bull Terrier and Rink the Labrador Retriever are frequently upstaged by feisty Syn the Siamese cat as the three pet pals Bodger (Muffy), Luath (Rink) and Tao (Syn) journey 250 miles through the Canadian wilderness to find their way home. A Walt Disney live-action classic, it was rather needlessly remade in 1993 (as Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey) with voiceovers for each of the pets and other ill-judged human meddling.


Best in Show (2000)


Pooches galore upstage their human sidekicks in this hilarious dog show spoof from the Spinal Tap team. Among the champion cast (you can feel the pedigree in their show names) are Quiet Creek’s Stand By Me as Hubert the Bloodhound, Rapture’s Classic and Symarun’s Red Hot Kisses as Shih Tzus Miss Agnes and Tyrone, Arokat’s Echobar Take Me Dancing as Beatrice the Weimerana, Urchin’s Brillo as Winky the Norwich Terrier, with Brocade Exclamation and Exxel Dezi Duz It With Pizaz sharing the role of Rhapsody in White the Standard Poodle. Fred Willard, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara and director Christopher Guest are among the biped stars.


101 Dalmatians (1996)

Image source: filmlinc.com

While everybody loves the original 1961 Disney animation, this live-action remake is notable not only for Glenn Close’s wickedly cartoonish turn as Cruella De Vil but also head animal trainer Gary Gero and his team’s accomplished handling of spotty dogs of all ages (admittedly with generous animatronic assistance from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop). Twenty adult dogs and 230 pups were hired for the production, but even the doggy stars who play Pongo, Perdita, Lucky and Patch go uncredited. Ruff justice.


Marley & Me (2008) 


Tracking 14 years of the life and adventures of a much-loved family pet, 22 Golden Labradors were called upon to play the role of ‘world’s worst dog’ Marley opposite human-interest add-ons John and Jenny (Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston). Scene-stealer-in-chief however, is ex-rescue dog Rudy, who gets to eat birthday cake, tear apart a snowman, swim in a pool and poop in the ocean. Having had such fun on the shoot, Rudy magnanimously donated his full $1,500 fee to Lab Rescue, a charity close to his heart.


Lassie series (1943 to 1949)

Image soure: telegraph.co.uk

The first and most iconic animal actor to play Lassie was male dog Pal, who starred in Lassie Come Home (1943) and six film sequels, as well as two TV pilots. By the time the TV show was commissioned, Pal was ready to retire, and the role went to his three-year-old son Lassie, Jr. Pal was first hired as a stunt dog for the original film, and was on standby when director Fred M. Wilcox decided to film a scene in the raging San Joaquin River after a flood. The female star refused to go in, and Pal stepped up to perform the complex shot in which he swims the river, crawls out exhausted without shaking his coat, and lies motionless with exhaustion. The rest is history.


Old Yeller (1957)

Image source: realhonestmom.com

Spike the Lab Mastiff (a breed known in these conflated times as Mastador), like Lassie’s Pal, was trained by brothers Rudd and Frank Weatherwax. He nearly wasn’t cast as Old Yeller as Disney chiefs thought him too much of a softie to take on the more vicious scenes. But they relented, and Spike stole our hearts as the ailing loyal pooch. Spike would live again in the 1959 tearjerker A Dog of Flanders, alongside 12-year-old David Ladd and Lassie veteran Donald Crisp.


Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009)

Image source: guardian.com

Noble-featured Akitas Chico, Layla and Forrest share the duties as faithful Hachi (a.k.a. Hachikō) who is taken in by Richard Gere’s college professor Parker Wilson and maintains a decade-long vigil after Wilson’s death. This is a remake of a 1987 Japanese film, which is based on the story of the real Hachikō who used to greet his owner at Shibuya railway station at the end of each day, and kept up the routine year on year after his master died in 1925, becoming a local celebrity. The original Hachikō is commemorated with a statue outside the station and, less fortuitously, can be found stuffed and mounted at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Ueno.


Beethoven (1992)

Image source: Iron Samurai

This soppy story about a big slobbery dog is rescued by the central performance of Chris the St Bernard. Astonishingly, Chris was forced to share the starring role in the following year’s rushed spin-off Beethoven’s 2nd, while his love interest Missy was played by three bitches, and no dogs appear in the credits. Such was the urgency to complete a sequel that a fully mechanised dog, a separate articulated head and a man in a St Bernard suit were also utilised. The still sorrier third to eighth sequels were made after Chris took his last walkies, and went straight to DVD. Class cannot be taught at doggy school.


Lady and the Tramp (1955)

Image source: disneyscreencaps.com
No real dogs were used in the making of this film, but this enchanting tale of an uptown Cocker Spaniel and her streetwise suitor is one of Disney’s finest animal tales, and stands as a wonderful tribute to our love and respect for pooches of every breed and provenance. Perhaps responsible for more puppy dog sales than any other film, the famous supper scene adds piquant romance to a simple plate of spaghetti. Co-stars Si and Am muscle in to nimbly remind viewers that the best animal films have felines too.