A large gap exists between children's movies that engage the imagination and much of the actual children-oriented products that are produced and released. In a perfect world, children could watch movies that would allow them the opportunity of entering into the movie world and actively taking part, using their growing little brains to fill in gaps or to place themselves within the story. But Hollywood doesn't work that way; it's uncomfortable with unknowns and gray areas, opportunities that allow the audience to think for itself. Rather, they want totally pre-programmed and controlled product, everything tested and committee-approved and based on pre-existing factors. And hence we have Firehouse Dog.

Directed by Todd Holland (Krippendorf's Tribe) and written by Claire-Dee Lim, Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, Firehouse Dog is a mostly inoffensive and professional job, with all the plot details carefully worked out according to standard guidelines. Not much goes amiss. The advertising materials use images of the heroic dog (played by four identical real-life pooches: Arwen, Frodo, Rohan and Stryder) riding a skateboard and wearing sunglasses, but thankfully such nonsense is kept to a minimum in the actual movie. The dog doesn't talk through CGI dog lips, but we do get three farting scenes, and -- you guessed it -- a burst of George Thorogood singing "Bad to the Bone" (get it?)
Instead, Firehouse Dog concentrates on plot, lots and lots of plot, a butt-numbing 111 minutes of plot with at least six subplots. Unless your child has the patience of a saint, I'd suggest proceeding with caution. As it begins, Rexxx the dog is a big-time movie star, spoiled beyond belief. In the middle of his latest movie shoot, he's sulking in his trailer over the loss of his true love, a girl Dalmatian with dreadlocks. Ever the professional though, he slips into his costume, which includes a wavy hairpiece and a collar reading "Dewey," and proceeds to parachute out of a plane. Unfortunately, an accident causes Rexxx to prematurely pitch out into midair. He lands, safe and sound, in a tomato truck but lost and without his proper ID tags.

Minus his hairpiece and covered with tomato juice, Rexxx/Dewey finds his way to twelve year-old Shane Fahey (Josh Hutcherson, also in the far superior Zathura and in the current Bridge to Terabithia). As with the usual Disney formula, Shane's mother is AWOL and his father, Connor Fahey (Bruce Greenwood) is the busy captain of the Dogpatch fire station. We know it's an underdog (no pun intended) station because of the cheerful misfits that work there (Bill Nunn, Scotch Ellis Loring, Mayte Garcia and Teddy Sears) and because they always lose the competitions at the firefighter's picnic (why is nobody left on call during these festivities?), while the more highly funded stations razz and jeer them.

Dogpatch Station is out of sorts lately because its former chief, Connor's brother and Shane's uncle, died in a fire, along with their previous canine mascot, Blue. Connor suspects foul play, a firebug, but no one believes him except plucky Shane. Moreover, the city is suffering budget cuts and will mostly likely shut down Dogpatch altogether. Because of all the trouble, Shane is doing badly in school; when he learns about a surprise pop quiz, he ditches. For some reason, Shane never really goes back to school, except for one short sequence later in the film in which we see that his studies are improving. Does the entire movie take place on weekends?

But there's more plot. Rexxx/Dewey turns out to be a natural-born mascot and publicity magnet, and he begins to turn around the small firehouse's fortunes. But the dog's real owners have not given up on him and continue to search, leading to the inevitable heartbreaking moment in which only one person gets to keep him. Finally, working at a rival firehouse, we have the sexy single mom Captain Jessie Presley (Claudette Mink), with a cute, blonde single daughter Jasmine (Hannah Lochner), about the same age as Shane, and also with a single, cute female dog, about the same age as Rexxx/Dewey. Is romance in the air? Take a wild guess.

Ultimately, this is the same plot as Disney's Cars, Aardman's Flushed Away, Ridley Scott's A Good Year and dozens of other movies: a spoiled, talented outsider is suddenly thrust into a new, unfamiliar world populated by kind-hearted, but reserved, misfits. Each side teaches the other a thing or two about humility and selflessness, and everyone winds up forming a new, loving, perfect family. It's obviously a popular formula, but ultimately has little to do with any kind of real experience, and it's getting tired.

The movie also trips up its chance to parody show business. This film's idea of "jokes" is to pun on recent movie titles like Jurassic Bark and The Fast and the Furriest. The main trouble is that Hollywood hasn't had a real dog star since Benji romped through the 1970s (although a small attempt was made just this past year to resurrect Lassie), and Firehouse Dog really doesn't have the first idea what dog stardom actually entails (again, no pun intended). For one thing, it has to do with a great deal more than navigating a multi-tiered story; back in the silent era, Rin Tin Tin worked in some of the creakiest plots imaginable, but he had a palpable screen presence, one that can still be felt today. (His 1925 film Clash of the Wolves is available in the "More Treasures from American Film Archives 1894-1931" DVD box set.)

But even though genuine dog stars are hard to come by, good dog movies are not, thankfully, so rare. Just last year, there was The Cave of the Yellow Dog, a delightful family-friendly movie from Mongolia (of all places), that tells a story simple enough to translate across cultures. The theatrical release had subtitles, but the new DVD from Tartan Video comes with an optional dubbed track so that children of all ages can enjoy. How's that for throwing a bone?