Scott (Kyler Charles Beck) and Emily (Madelyn Kientz) are staying at his grandmother's house when fate brings them suddenly face to face with Rufus (voiced by Ryan Bellgardt), a magical cat-like creature. Rufus needs the kids' help. Firstly to help his best friend, the wizard Abbott (Cory Phillips), escape from another dimension. Then, with the aid of an ancient spell book, gather special ingredients to create the magic dust needed to save their world. However Abbott's nemesis, the evil Lilith (Leah N.H. Philpott) is also after the spell book which she believes can grant her the power to turn anything she wants into gold.
These days a low-to-mid-budget indie family movie has to hitch itself to a bigger brand name blockbuster in order to snag even a modest audience. Oklahoma-based visual effects artist-turned-writer-director Ryan Bellgardt has done this multiple times with films like The Jurassic Games (2018) (The Hunger Games meets Jurassic Park, get it?) and The Adventures of Jurassic Pet: Chapter 1 (2019). With Adventures of Rufus: The Fantastic Pet, Bellgardt, who in addition to animating also voices the titular furry hero, appears to be riding the coattails of J.K. Rowling's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016). Yet the film's convoluted (and frankly unnecessary) setup explicitly evokes The Princess Bride (1987) with a kindly old man (Ben Hall) recounting Scott and Emily's adventures alongside Rufus to his grandchildren Peter (Evan Assante) and Sarah (Madilyn Kellam). As in the Rob Reiner-directed classic the initially skeptical kids repeatedly interrupt the story with wiseass asides. However, grandpa keeps interrupting the story too to deliver some pretty cryptic moral messages.
While the bulk of the film takes its cue from the wizard world of Rowling, in brighter moments Adventures of Rufus evokes the classic children's literature of E. Nesbit with a mysterious magical animal, secret doorways to other worlds and kids vs. crooks antics. Indeed the film has a certain cosy magical quality reminiscent of vintage teatime serials on the BBC. Bellgardt fashions a polished production that often looks slicker than the budget suggests. What the visual effects lack in technical polish (although Rufus' climactic battle with a fearsome dragon is pretty impressive) they make up in ambition and imagination. Rufus himself sports a cartoonish design that, while not especially lifelike, exudes an amiable swashbuckling personality. Sort of like Harrison Ford in feline form. Not that this explains why a talking animal in clothes wanders around New York drawing only mild bemusement and the odd raised eyebrow. Well, it is New York...
If the messages inherent in Bellgardt and Chris Hoyt's sequel-baiting screenplay are simplistic and delivered unsubtly the film does to its credit craft a solid character arc for heroine Emily. She starts out simply making goo-goo eyes at Scott but gradually blossoms into a confident, capable heroine. In fact young leads Kyler Charles Beck and Madelyn Kientz are both quite winning in contrast to the Disney Channel sitcom level performances served up by their bug-eyed grownup co-stars. And Scott and Emily's awkward adolescent romance ends up proving quite sweet.