The film is adapted from the novel by Louis de Bernieres and is based on true events: there is an actual statue that stands in Dampier today, erected in Red Dog's memory. This moment is well-realised in the film, when the miners argue against erecting a statue of the English explorer William Dampier, who sailed past the coast in 1699 and, upon landing, declared the place was filled with 'too many flies' and hastily left. The miners argue that Red Dog should be commemorated instead – an animal who mixes with any man, and 'lives and breathes this vastness, this desolation. Somebody who has red dust up their nostrils.' On the mining frontier, everyone is equal regardless of birth or personal history, and thus the statue of the lone, wandering dog is both an embodiment of rugged Australian individualism and a monument to egalitarianism.
So, back to the film itself. There are contradictory attitudes to it, with some declaring it a 'breath of fresh air' with breathtaking cinematography and vintage soundtracks that perfectly capture the conditions of a 70s mining town, and its box-office success is certainly testament to Australia's enthusiasm for its legendary canine. Yet I felt that the vitality and pioneering aspect of the Red Kelpie's journey around the Pilbara region had been somewhat lost: presented in the comfortable format of a family-film for a sleepy Sunday afternoon, it came across as a child-friendly, slightly schmaltzy number which continually plays on the emotions and tugs on the heartstrings, to a refrain of clichéd back-slapping and good-natured laughter. It contains all the components of a family-friendly plot – a courageous dog, an inevitable (albeit slightly-wooden) PG-certificated romance between Lucas and Rachael Taylor (Transformers), and a bunch of rough-around-the-edges-but-ultimately-good-hearted miners –which have been cooked up unimaginatively together. Vanno (Arthur Angel), for example, is a character whose Spanish stereotype an audience will find either hilarious or tiresomely predictable.
An unpretentious film, Red Dog was shot on a low budget. In an interview Stenders said that "The film is about people and the lives this dog changes", and at times it seems like the dog's legendary journey is sidelined, which is a shame. Koko is the undeniable star of the film, humanised through his love for hitch hiking, his grudge against his nemesis Red Cat and his life-long loyalty to John Stazzonelli which poignantly lasts beyond the grave. Stenders argues that he tried to recreate 'the innocence about the 70s that is very evocative and unique', and the 1970s soundtrack and lack of CGI (except for the fight between Red Dog and Red Cat) recreates the setting of the Western Australian outback well. Yet it feels like it could do with a bit more substance – it lacks imaginative zest, and at times lapses into banality.
Ultimately, it is a 'nice' film which can be enjoyed by everyone. The plot meanders towards an uplifting ending (embodied in the tagline 'Sometimes life leads you to where you need to be), but I left it feeling slightly frustrated and unconvinced. Universal appeal is sometimes synonymous with blandness, and for me the film failed to evoke the exuberant spirit of the Red Dog legend.