I THINK we can take it as read that Aussie audiences just love animal films.
Just consider for a moment how entranced we were with the movies about Babe the pig, Red Dog the Western Australian kelpie who went everywhere and the penguin sagas of Happy Feet.
Well, now we’ve got a movie with a mix of dog and penguins except this time it’s a big maremma sheepdog who’s been trained to look after a colony of little penguins.
What, you might rightly ask, is a maremma.
Well it’s a big fluffy white breed used by Italian farmers to protect their sheep from wolves.
Down in western Victoria – and probably elsewhere in the state – they’ve been adopted by chicken farmers to chase foxes away from their henhouses.
That’s what local Warrnambool chicken farmer Allan ‘Swampy’ Marsh used his maremmas for.
Except he expanded on the scheme, prompted by his daughter Emily, who despaired about the potential demise of the little penguin colony on an island off the town’s beach.
Emily (Sarah Snook) is a parks and wildlife officer and she knows if the penguin colony is reduced much below 20 by the predatory foxes the island will lose its sanctuary status.
Thus the tourist trade around Warrnambool and the surrounding coastal towns will plummet.
So Swampy (Shane Jacobson) listens to his daughter and nine-year-old granddaughter Olivia (Coco Jack Gillies) and enlists maremma Oddball (Kai, discovered in an RSPCA dogs’ refuge).
Oddball loves to run. Early on the big dog takes off from Swampy’s ute and careers through the town’s streets.
She speeds down the thoroughfares tipping over street furniture and stalls and even causing people to be upended as well.
But that’s not what Swampy has in mind for Oddball. He introduces the dog to the remnant penguin colony and their first meeting is memorable.
They eye each other off although Emily expects more from the dog than just plain curiosity.
But getting the dog and the penguins to bond isn’t the only problem facing Swampy and Emily. There’s the local dog catcher (Frank Woodley) who’s not too enamoured of a big, fluffy dog being given free rein.
And Emily’s partner Bradley (Alan Tudyk) from the local tourism authority wants to turn the island into a whale-watching location and watch the dollars roll in.
Despite all these side issues Kai and the penguins get on and the big dog protects them through the long nights.
The scenes between the maremma and the penguins (who were on loan from a zoo) required some lateral thinking as they weren’t permitted to interact on the set together.
So this regulation necessitated some outstanding visual trickery. Nothing has seemed to dent the work of cinematographer Damian Wyvill, however. His beautiful scenes provide we viewers with some astonishing eye candy.
I’ve become a real fan of Sarah Snook. From the two-part ABC-TV historical drama The Secret River to the very recent The Dressmaker, where she’s transformed from a dowdy grocery shop bean counter to a 1950s temptress, she’s reliably good and infuses real energy into her scenes.
Jacobson is fine by me as well. From the hearty erstwhile ‘plumber’ delivering porta-loos in Kenny to Detective Jim O’Brien in the Underbelly series Fat Tony and Co. and onto the actual grocer (and Snook’s ‘father’) in The Dressmaker he’s great fun.