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When I first saw Sun Dogs on the list of movies available for review to
Spout Mavens members, I skipped past it after reading only a few
sentences. A movie about a Jamaican sled dog team? Cool Runnings gave
me enough wacky Jamaican fish-out-of-water sports hijinks for one
lifetime. Then I saw it was a documentary, and I put in a request. Then
I started watching it and my interest waned. Then 10 minutes passed and
I was hooked. Then I was bored. Then I was hooked again! It was a
constant roller coaster of varying interest levels.
It's impossible to view Sun Dogs without thinking of Cool Runnings-the John Candy vehicle that had him training the first Jamaican bobsled team(based on a true story)- and in fact that's the intention of just about everyone involved in this film. The Jamaican sled dog idea was nothing more or less than a calculated ploy to bring money, tourism and attention to a country mired in widespread poverty and crime. This isn't an ignoble goal by any means; the main purpose of everyone involved is to show the world that Jamaicans are hardworking, strongwilled people, able to succeed at whatever they try. My problem, specifically in the beginning of the film, is that the documentary looks too much like a video postcard you might see on the travel channel, and I was worried that Sun Dogs would completely ignore the less attractive aspects of Jamaica. But, about 10-15 minutes in, the film begins to go down those more dangerous streets, and features a few talking head interviews that cover the crime rate in Kingston, the state of education, and the state of poverty. This seems to add a few new dimensions to the film, but in the end it isn't focused enough. The filmmakers try to cover so many topics, and then cram it into a few scant minutes during a documentary about sled dogs, that the documentary has no real depth.
For the most part the film follows the handful of people trying to pull together a sled dog team, train the dogs from scratch, and introduce this new sport in a country where most people don't even know what 'sledding' is. This is, literally, a ragtag team of dogs and people, which fits right in with the uplifting sports film these people are so desperate to make. All of the dogs are rescued from the J.S.P.C.A. and the filmmakers(and dogsled promoters) are eager to paint this as an allegory for Jamaica itself. These dogs are rescued from hard and brutal lives and given a shot to improve themselves and live happily ever after. And there lies my main complaint with this film; everyone is so eager to make this a brand, to market both the film and the country, that this documentary rarely feels real. I'm not saying that the events in this film never happened, or that it was all scripted, I'm just saying that for a documentary there's an awful lot of manipulation going on.
The previous documentary I reviewed here, Let The Church Say Amen, featured a group of people I would normally not enjoy spending time with, and despite the fact that I didn't enjoy spending time with the people in that film, I came away pleased with the movie overall. Mainly that was because every single thing in that film felt real, like the cameras just happened to capture these people and these events. In Sled Dogs it's obvious, painfully so, that some scenes and events have been staged because the filmmakers just needed the footage. A lot of these are minor, like characters meeting or having introductory conversations when it's clear they'd known each other previously.
It's hard for me to hate- or even dislike- this film, when the goal is so noble and the efforts of everyone involved are so heartfelt, but too much of this feels like a bad infomercial. Like the introductions of all the dogs where they do something wacky, the shot freezes as their name comes up and someone dubs in a cheesy 'woof woof' sound, to give them all personality. Something happens on the island near the end of the film that is a complete reversal of everything you would expect. The documentary seems eager to skip past this event, which I will not divulge here, but if anything more time should have been spent on it. It introduces the idea that perhaps the entire ills of a nation can't be solved by a winning sled dog team and a heart of gold attitude. It's also the one moment in the film that feels heartbreakingly real and unstaged. As it stands it's too little too late.
Sun Dogs is the heartwarming tale of the first ever Jamaican dogsled team. Yes, dogsled not bobsled. The film documents the rescue of 12 stray dogs from Jamaica and their formation into a dogsled team. It's a film about second chances, not only for the dogs but for the mushers as well. The mushers are offered the chance of a lifetime as they cultivate their love for animals while receiving an education and traveling the world. It also reveals the true Jamaica. Dire poverty plagues the country, yet the people are skilled, intelligent, hardworkers. It's a great film for the whole family to watch. You get attached to each of the dogs like they're your own. The film puts me in a good mood every time I watch.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
So you've heard of the Jamaican bobsled team? Well this was a
documentary about the Jamaican Dogsled team- a film made for and by dog
lovers. My girlfriend giggled and made those sounds that girls do when
cute dogs are on screen throughout the entire 1 ½ hour running time.
That was the best thing about this movie.
A white haired Jamaican man had a crackpot idea to start a team and soon garnered the support of the likes of Jimmy Buffet. He and his people went to a pound and rescued some mongrels. They found an upstanding young Jamaican man that was good with animals to be the "musher"- the guy on the sled controlling the dogs. The first hour is spent getting to know the various dogs- Smiley, Squeeze, and so on. We follow the young Jamaican musher as he leaves his homeland for the first time to train in Minnesota with a 30 year mushing veteran.
Director, off camera: "How do you feel?" Musher: "I feel Joy." The team starts to build up to their first race- in Scotland. Around this time the tolerable film goes seriously downhill. Turns out our smiling mushing hero isn't such a beacon of light after all. Off-screen he takes one of his bosses cars out for a joyride and crashes it. He is kicked off the team. I would have kept him on for the sake of cinema- especially when, I can almost guarantee, the creator of the dogsled team financed the film. But, no, they kick him off the team and send some other guy with no training to Scotland. The worst part is the dogs don't get to go to Scotland either- they wouldn't be allowed back into Jamaica if they leave. The whole message of the film up to that point was dogsled racing is about the relationship between the musher and his animals. So now we have an inexperienced guy we don't care about racing dogs we have never seen before at the supposed climax of the movie. I kind of admire it's realism but the scenes are awkward to say the least. They are obviously not wanted at the Scotland race. Though it is not said out-right, the Scots and the other teams think the Jamaican musher and his and his entourage and camera crew have shown up to make a mockery of the serious sport of dogsleding. They finish 47th with the new musher arriving at the finish line crying full blown tears with an injured dog in the dog bag (the rarely used little bad attached to the sled for emergencies). The Scots run up to help the dog yelling "oh my god- what did he do to you!" as the man stands there ignored, beaten, and broken. This scene is both a testament to the dog fanaticism of these racers and the failure of humanity to help one another.
Anyway, the film ends with a montage of dog-osophy with the main characters reflecting on the importance of saving dogs and Jamaican pride. The movie, which is available to watch on Youtube, contains some good insights into the nature of the relationship between man and dog. The Jamaican Dogsled Team definitely built something from nothing that saves dog lives and helps their local economy. But does this make for a good documentary? No. If you love dogs, I recommend watching the first 45 minutes for some solid dog porn. If not, don't bother, I already told you what happens anyway.
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