Twelve-year-old whizz-kid Olly is a tech prodigy who accidentally creates a telepathic connection between him and his furry best friend Henry when his middle school science fair experiment goes awry.
When Chinese teen tech genius Xiao hacks into a vital satellite to help his American friend Olly read his dog’s mind, it’s flagged to a global security agency as a cyber attack. Misunderstanding the dog’s thoughts, they assume there’s going to be an attack on the President. It’s like WarGames for neo-liberals, with Xiao’s work having the potential not to start a nuclear conflagration but – arguably worse for some people – to bring down the entire banking system.
The hack is a big deal, though villainy in Think Like a Dog is mostly of the larger than life, slow to react in the face of danger, cartoonish type. “Run faster and don’t be such a dimwit!” I thought, a bit like when I take my own dog out for a jog with me and she insists on stopping dead in the middle of a busy road because 100 years ago another dog peed there. Even Olly’s dog Henry makes clear to Olly that he won’t actually eat the bad guy, not after 15,000 years of domestication.
This is a good-hearted talking dog movie, with several doggie farts and much sniffing of butts. (My 8 year old awarded it four stars out of five, almost certainly because of the farts, and Henry’s “revenge poop”.)
Olly (Gabriel Batman) is being bullied at his science and technology school. His drama teacher picks on him and he’s too scared to ask Sophie, the girl of his dreams, to the school dance.
One day at the school science fair, attended by school benefactor and rock star tech entrepreneur Mr Mills (Kunal Nayyar), Olly demonstrates his latest invention: a thought reading machine. Thoughts are electrical disturbances in the brain, and if you magnify them enough you should be able to read them, he explains, before asking a classmate to think of a colour. But the classmate lies to the audience saying it doesn’t work, and Olly’s big moment fizzles out.
That night Xiao (Minghao Hou) hack into that satellite from China, to give Olly some extra processing power while he tests his thought-reading machine again, this time on Henry – and next morning Olly can hear his pet’s thoughts.
Many, though not all of Henry’s thoughts are butt-related, though increasingly Henry’s main aim is for Olly to help his parents get their marriage back on track by copying Henry’s own contented take on life. Henry is always happy because his needs are met, and his needs are small scale. Food. Warmth. Companionship. Butts.
Olly’s dad Lucas (Josh Duhamel) is a soccer coach, and a job offer from a prestigious university several hours away means it’s make or break time for him and Ellen (Megan Fox). There’s a lethargy in their passive-aggressive arguments as if they can’t even be bothered to get cross any more.
Meanwhile other people have caught wind (ha!) of Olly’s invention, and are chasing the unsuspecting tween down for reasons good and ill.
Henry is a most agreeable doggy narrator (voiced by Todd Stashwick, though I couldn’t find a name for the canine actor him/herself); loving his humans if frustrated by their actions, he unsurprisingly gets all the best lines.
Think Like A Dog won’t set the world on fire (unless someone lights Henry’s particularly noxious, house-clearing farts) but it would be wrong to call it simply a shaggy dog story.
The movie’s strong start isn’t maintained to the end and the jokes are scattered unevenly – but it is often funny, and always good-natured and well-meaning, bounding along like a puppy in a cornfield.
It’s at its sparky best when Olly and Henry are with others, and Henry is commentating on what’s going on around them: either other dogs (I never tire of films where animals talk to each other, even if the limits of their shared interests are bottoms and eyeing up snooty French pooches) or other people. When Henry and Olly are alone together it’s very sweet but a little worthy.
And while Olly’s wish to keep his family together is understandable, his chat with Henry about how divorce is the worst thing that can happen to a family isn’t what many children from divorced families need to hear. It’s a misstep in a film that tries very hard to be inclusive.
Xiao is acknowledged as Olly’s fellow genius – theirs is a partnership – and reappears throughout the film, rather than being used to prop up the cute American boy (the film is a co-production with China). It plays out rather clunky at times, but then the whole film frequently veers from letting the story do the talking to putting big signposts everywhere.
Izaac Wang plays Olly’s best friend Li, happy-go-lucky and wise when it comes to tween romance. (Wang may be only 12 but he does a good line in funny sidekick; though it’s also a reminder that we need far more family films coming out of Hollywood with non-white families at their very centre.)
Gabriel Bateman is an engaging performer, with a vulnerability and an energy that young audiences, especially more “nerdy” ones, will appreciate.
Beyond the focus on family, any film that celebrates science for children – and its dependence on cooperation and shared excitement for breakthroughs to happen – has to be a good thing. There’s also a clear understanding that inventions are neutral, and can be used for good or evil.
By the way, I have no idea if the science around thoughts, as explained in Think Like A Dog, is actually 0%, 50% or 100% true. But it sounded true, and I will be wearing a tinfoil hat from now on.
Think Like a Dog is available on digital download and DVD
Watch the Think like A Dog trailer now (or scroll down for more…):
The ending! The villain is Mr Mills, who wants to steal Olly’s invention so he can hear what his competitors are saying. The local dogs save Olly when Mr Mills kidnaps him, and make him suffer by sitting on his face (yes really).
Olly gets to the dance late but Sophie is waiting for him. When his mum and dad arrive to collect him, Olly gets the DJ to play their wedding song and they dance and kiss.
Sophie and Ollie have a slow dance. Mr Mills turns up, as do the agents who grab him. Bridget, Mr Mills’s assistant, betrays him as she’s angry that he treats her like an idiot.
For hacking the satellite Olly is sentenced to home detention. The agents are actually working for a global initiative to use technology to help mankind. They invite Olly and his family to a special summer school in Hawaii and then to pay for his college. He’s also let off his home detention.