Whether or not lightening can strike twice is a question that the producers of Red Dog: True Blue are hoping to answer favourably, and in fact, the question is factored into the film itself. It is the prequel to Red Dog, one of the most successful Australian films of all time and that less-than-subtle question within the film may have been answered, however, the practical real-life answer remains to be seen.
The original film took the country by storm and became the highest selling local home-entertainment release of all time. It told the fictionalised “true-story” of Red Dog, a kelpie that wanders into a remote mining town and captures the hearts of everyone it meets. It was a bold and vibrant film, with a strong production value and a shamelessly schmaltzy storyline. The cast was big, with the likes of Josh Lucas, Rachael Taylor and Noah Taylor all playing second fiddle to the adorable canine performer, Koko. And so how do the creators of such an iconic and provoking film follow it up? With a prequel, of course.
True Blue begins with a clever premise that goes a long way towards thwarting off cynics. Kicking off in 2011, the story tells of a middle-aged man reconnecting with his sons by taking them to see Red Dog at a local cinema in Perth. He is moved to tears when he realises that the film is based on the adventures of the same dog that he owned as a child. Overwhelmed with emotion, he sits bedside with his son and tells the story of “Blue”, the name that he gave the dog. And so begins an all-new adventure, set on a remote homestead in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.
This is a very different film to the original Red Dog and to the filmmakers’ credit they haven’t tried to replicate the story. Instead, the production design feels more confined, and the narrative is far less flagrant in its attempt to tug at the viewer’s heartstrings. Where the first film was set against a corporate mining backdrop, this instalment pays attention to the traditional Indigenous landowners and incorporates an element of ‘dreamtime’ lore into the story; a nice sentiment, despite being somewhat contrived.
British actor Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter) serves as the film’s narrator, as he recalls his childhood shared with Blue Dog. His gives a remarkable performance that provides the true emotional anchor of the film, and of course his profile lends an immediate connection for the international audience. Australian cinema has a long history of employing international talent to help bolster projects and most guest stars have maintained their own accents. Of those who’ve attempted to master the Aussie lingo, very few have done so successfully, and I am thrilled to report that Isaacs nails it with perfection. He ought to consider himself an honorary Aussie.
The supporting cast includes Bryan Brown, Steve Le Marquand, Hanna Mangan Lawrence and John Jarrett, amongst others. They all offer modest and understated performances, which keep the film’s atmosphere grounded and less fanciful. Leading the film is a young actor by the name of Levi Miller, who most recently starred in the live-action film Pan. He has an undeniable on-screen presence that radiates the level of charisma and intrepidity required to carry a film of this magnitude, as well as a face that lights up the screen. And of course, the true star of the film goes without saying. Blue Dog is played by Phoenix, a ridiculously talented kelpie who commands the screen and owns every single frame. The performance that returning director Kriv Stenders has extracted from Phoenix is incredible, and I can only imagine that finding a four-legged performer to follow in Koko’s footsteps to be a painstaking task. Hat’s off to Stender and co. for doing exactly that.
With Red Dog now a franchised property, this delightful prequel continues the legacy sincerely with an emphasis on modesty and greater attention to character development. It isn’t a carbon copy of the first film and yet weaves its story into the original narrative discretely. It’s quite a fete to have a prequel set itself apart and yet slide into the overriding story arc so nicely. Ultimately, it makes for great family-friendly viewing and ought to satisfy fans of the original.