Quick thoughts on: Hachi: A Dog’s Tale

Here we have the best live-action family film in years, starring Richard Gere and Joan Allen, directed by Lasse Hallström, with a decent box office reception in international theaters… and dumped unceremoniously by Sony into the ghetto of direct-to-video. What happened?

I should not be complaining. For a decade plus change, I’ve been championing (in my own small way, at least) the direct-to-video market as a legitimate distribution outlet. Sure, its reputation as a dead zone of cheapjack also-rans and quickie in-name-only sequels is often deserved, but it’s also the best way for independent filmmakers to get their work seen. Video store shelves (and, as video stores die off, the lesser-seen corners of Netflix) can be a place for smaller titles to thrive. The sooner customers stop looking down on DTV, the sooner the best DTV titles can be celebrated alongside their theatrically-released counterparts.

But studios still think of DTV as the last ditch dumping ground for acquired works they deem unworthy of even a late-January theatrical run. This suggests Sony saw no value at all in Hachi: A Dog’s Tale. (I’m told after Hachi hit video, some art houses around the country started running it, knowing a good thing when they see it.)

Sony’s mistake, however, is DTV’s victory: we now have a clear answer whenever someone asks “what’s the best direct-to-video movie yet made?” Yes, Hachi is that good, and then some: it’s a thoughtful, restrained study of loyalty and love, stripped to the basics. What could’ve been a corny melodrama is instead quiet and inviting. The simplicity of the script has no room for unnecessary conflict; the occasional sparks of comedy are true to life; the colorful batch of supporting characters add to the film’s heart without cluttering its plot. It remains family-friendly without compromising intelligent artistry. Every performance is perfect, not only from Gere (his best in ages) but from the variety of dogs cast as the titular Hachiko.

It is, simply put, a lovely film that earns its emotional response (and oh yes you will cry) the old fashioned way: through organic storytelling and sincere direction. This is one of the best films of 2010 by far, and it demands to find the audience Sony tried to deny it.

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