Think Free Willy – only with a dog, a cute kid, an eccentric grandpa, and fairy penguins in place of a whale. It’s good, clean, old-fashioned family fun. No spaceships, superheroes, heavy-handed CGI or cars that turn into robots. Just lots of heart and little blue penguins. It’s a tall tale based on the true story of eccentric Australian chicken farmer, Allan ‘Swampy’ Marsh, and his smarter-than-her-years granddaughter, Olivia, (a delightful double-act by Shane Jacobson and Coco Jack Gillies). Together they hatch a plan to save the dwindling penguin population of a tiny sanctuary from fox attacks, by training up Oddball – a big hearted, but big trouble, Maremma sheepdog.
The supporting non-canine cast are great, from Sarah Snook as Swampy’s daughter Emily, to Frank Woodley as a creepy dog-catcher. The only misstep in an otherwise light, frothy, family-friendly farce, is Alan Tudyk’s role, a token American doubling as Emily’s boyfriend and the clumsy representative of the US tourism-as-business model. It’s a subplot that rests uneasily within a film which exists in a conservative’s idyllic dream of family, friendship, oneness with nature and, um, dogs babysitting penguins.
Whilst the old git movie critic in me cringed (especially at the oh-so obvious leaps from real Aussie locations to sets), the big kid in me ate it up as readily as Babe. Sure, it’s not perfect. It’s politically naïve, sappy, sentimental and often silly – but then so were Beethoven and Lassie, movie series to which director Stuart McDonald clearly tips his hat. Cynical sneers aside, Oddball delivers a true shaggy dog story that, along with the recent Paper Planes, proves quality, old-school family filmmaking is alive, waddling and barking, in Oz.
‘Oddball’ Movie Times