A dog with a mysterious past makes a life-long friend in a college music professor in Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, a solid, sweet family film.
Parker Wilson (Richard Gere) is a professor who travels by train each day from his idyllic village (Woonsocket, Rhode Island, maybe) to the university where he teaches. Coming home one evening, he finds a small dog wandering around the station. Not wanting to leave the dog there and clearly a softy when it comes to pets, Parker agrees to take the dog home for a few days until station master Carl (Jason Alexander) is contacted by whoever comes looking for the dog.
His wife, Cate Wilson (Joan Allen), correctly guesses that “a few days” will soon become forever. She presses Parker to put up signs and look for a new home for the puppy, particularly after it works a little puppy mayhem, but soon she gives in and the dog, who is named Hachi after the Japanese character on his collar, becomes a permanent family fixture.
A word here — I am not a dog person. The little ones seem kind of annoying, the big ones are, well, big. But this dog, which is supposed to be an akita dog from Japan, is beautiful. They have pretty, flowy, fur that is similar in color to that of a fox. They have faces similar to Huskies’ but squinchier — friendlier to a person generally freaked out by dogs who can, on two paws, match human height. The breed in general and this dog in particular seem full of the kinds of qualities — loyalty, affability, a bit of cleverness — that get people all excited about dog ownership to begin with. I personally can not fathom spending winter mornings walking through my neighborhood carrying baggies of dog poo, but watching Hachi bond with Parker gets even a hard-core my-pet-is-a-cactus anti-dog-ite like me thinking, “Awww, puppy.”
As the years go by, Hachi grows from a bread loaf-sized bundle of copper-colored adorableness to become a big beautiful companion for Parker. Hachi trots with Parker each morning down to the train station and is there waiting for Parker when he gets back in the evening. Hachi becomes a kind of dog about town with the people who work in the area — Carl, a hot dog vendor (Erick Avari), and a local bookstore owner (Davenia McFadden). The waiting Hachi becomes a train station fixture — until the evening that Parker doesn’t come home.
This movie went more or less straight to DVD and I can kind of understand why. It isn’t about a boy and his dog — the standard family animal movie equation. It’s more about a dog and his human and the relationship they form and how that changes over the years and how the dog sees his role in the world. The movie is bookended by Ronnie (Kevin DeCoste) telling the tale of Hachi to his class — Ronnie who isn’t even born until a good halfway through the movie. But the point of view of the movie is Hachi’s. On several occasions we actually see the world from his vantage point. It makes not for a big Marmaduke comedy or an Old Yeller weepie but a more quiet and contemplative movie.
And it helps that the human half of the equation is played with nice restraint by Gere (with his more annoying Richard Gere qualities turned way down) and Joan Allen, who is pretty much always great. There are hints of humor and hints of emotion but nothing is hit over the head too hard and the movie always picks subtlety over hamminess — great for us watching the movie but you can see how it would get pushed aside by a studio looking for either name actors (like in the more showily melodramatic Marley & Me) or dog-fart jokes.
Hachi is sweet without being saccharin and is genuinely enjoyable. B
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom and written by Stephen P. Lindsey (from the screenplay for Hachiko Monogatari by Kaneto Shindo), Hachi: A Dog’s Tale is an hour and 33 minutes long and will open on Friday, June 25, at Red River Theatres, which provided a screener for the review of this film.