Animals are strictly forbidden at the foster home where sixteen year old Andi (Emma Roberts) lives with her kid brother Bruce (Jake T. Austin). But the siblings are willing to risk everything to keep taking care of Friday, their adorable little dog. As a result of their misadventures concerned social worker Bernie (Don Cheadle) warns Andi and Bruce they may lose their last shot at finding a home with a loving family. When the kids stumble upon an abandoned hotel, Bruce uses his engineering genius to transform the place into not just a haven for Friday but an entire army of strays. With a little help from Dave (Johnny Simmons) the handsome pet store worker, Andi and Bruce take on the task of caring for these unwanted 'orphans' but struggle to keep their activities a secret.
Hotel for Dogs delivers what is arguably the best-realized portrayal of a canine's eye view of the world since Disney's Lady and the Tramp (1955). Adapted from the novel by Lois Duncan this engaging family film draws a parallel between disenfranchised orphans Andi and Bruce and the similarly rootless and seemingly unwanted stray dogs. The plot interweaves the expected cuddly canine antics with a Cinderella-subplot wherein Andi retreats into fantasy, convincing Dave and his friends her parents are alive and well in order to experience the normal teenage life she longs for. While the film does not delve into the psychological undertones of children creating a safe haven from the harsher aspects of life with the same level of poetic insight as Fielder Cook's much-underrated The Hideaways (1973) it remains artful with more on its mind than say Beverly Hills Chihuahua (2008).
The film has the benefit of strong, committed performances from a young Emma Roberts and Wizards of Waverly Place star Jake T. Austin along with the creative visual storytelling of Thor Freudenthal, an unsung but talented force in children's fare. Freudenthal keeps the pace snappy and the tone light and breezy. It is worth noting that the film was criticized for deviating from the realism of Duncan's novel into fantasy. Some of these criticisms seem valid. In a throwback to the animal-centric Disney live action films of the Sixties and Seventies, Freudenthal does dwell excessively on the admittedly crowd-pleasing antics of an adorable fleabag ensemble to the slight detriment of the more emotionally nuanced human drama. Friends star Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon of Entourage snag most of the non-canine related laughs as foster parents and talentless wannabe rock stars Lois and Carl while the rest of the supporting cast are underdeveloped. On the plus side Hotel for Dogs features an array of amusing slapstick set-pieces centred on Bruce's Heath Robinson-esque canine-pampering contraptions without falling into the Home Alone (1990) trap of childish sadism. Especially ingenious is a solution to the pee and poop problem many real-life dog owners will envy.