Movies revolving around animals generally fall into the family-friendly section, with comedies or similar like Beethoven and Babe, or slightly dramatic like Free Willy. Obviously there's the occasional heart-breaker like Marley and Me and let's not even mention Watership Down ever. 2011's Red Dog was Australia's offering into the animal-driven comedy-drama genre based on a true story of a dog who travelled through Western Australia's Pilbara region and the impact he had on many peoples' lives. It was highly successful in Australia and found moderate success worldwide so it's no great surprise that a prequel was eventually developed a few years later.
Prequels to successful movies have a lot of added pressure on them but Red Dog: The Early Years seems to step up to the plate and understands exactly what it needs to offer. It's always important to know your audience and writer Daniel Taplitz seems to know the balance a movie like this needs to deliver. There's just enough of the original's charm and heart to make The Early Years feel less of a cash-in than many prequels, instead making an effort to continue what made the first film as popular as it was and offer something new as well. Yet there's also a feeling here that they wanted to make a movie that didn't rely on a viewer having seen the original. Yes of course there's links to the first and fans will appreciate that, but there's no sense of exclusion for newbies and plenty for them to enjoy too.
Beyond the strangely meta opening sequence The Early Years is a fairly straightforward tale of friendship and family and everything you would expect from a Red Dog film. Jason Isaacs plays Mick, a family man who has flashbacks to his younger years and the struggles he had. The best thing for me is that it's not all sunshine and rainbows and they're willing to show the slightly darker and more tragic side of life as well. Original Red Dog aka Koko sadly passed away in 2012 so new lead Phoenix takes centre stage as Blue in the origin story and plays the part with the same emotional level and believability that made the first film so easy to love. This story takes place in the 1960s, a whole different world but the same Australian freedom and vast landscapes remain. Again it's a beautiful film to watch, breathtaking in places and it makes you never want to take your eyes off the screen.
It would be so easy for The Early Years to fall back on a formulaic story and retread everything they told in the first but the characters and setting are enough to help it stand alone. The younger Mick (Levi Miller) is already suffering from tragedy with his parents and is then thrust into a whole new world at his Grandpa's cattle station. Unsurprisingly it's a rocky road for Mick to pursue as Grandpa is a stubborn old man and stuck in his ways but Mick finds Blue and life gets better. They share moments of adventure and mischief and provide some really heart-warming and smile-raising sequences along the way. It's not all fun and games however as Grandpa (Bryan Brown) wants Mick to focus on his education and brings in a home tutor in the form of Betty (Hanna Mangan Lawrence) who catches Mick's young eye and motivates him in a slightly different way to what Grandpa may have been hoping.
As much as this is Mick's story, there's a good cast of supporting characters that flesh out the scenes. Jimmy (Key Chan) the cook, pilot Bill (Thomas Cocquerel) and activist Taylor Pete (Calen Tassone) to name a few all add different dimensions to a film that could easily be simple but director Kriv Stenders has clearly worked hard with his writer to ensure this isn't your average prequel that will be forgotten by the time it's finished. It helps that Miller brings an authenticity and heart to the lead character and you're really rooting for him and Blue along the way. Naturally it's during those formative and challenging years and they're always strong ones from writers to pull from, but the script manages to stay away from being too predictable. And yes, emotional moments involving pets almost write themselves sometimes, but they're never overdone or overly sentimental to the point where they don't work.
Red Dog: The Early Years is better than it has any right to be. It's not easy to capture that magic again but somehow the casting is spot on with Miller and Phoenix working so well together. The script does a fine job of telling an emotional, dramatic and humorous story backed up by another beautiful backdrop and Cezary Skubiszewski’s score. Whether you're a fan of the original or just of movies like this in general you'll certainly find yourself laughing and crying throughout. Mick's journey into becoming a man and his friendship with his loyal dog is something we can all relate to and by the end you'll all want a Blue in your lives too.