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.
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