When you’re ready to cozy up with the kids and a big tub of popcorn, few movies are more satisfying than those with strong animal leads. Hero Dog: The Journey Home, which debuts on DVD and streaming services March 23, tells the harrowing tale of Chinook, an Alaskan malamute, and Royce Davis (Steve Byers), a man who is blind trying to get home to his daughter, Erin (Morgan DiPietrantonio) and son, Max (Zackary Arthur). After the two survive a shipwreck, Chinook becomes Royce’s guide dog to navigate a treacherous Canadian wilderness, fend off mountain lions and wolves, and somehow find their way back to the family.
The film’s writer and director, Richard Boddington, prefers working with live animal actors instead of relying on computer-generated characters. “There’s an old saying in film: never work with kids and animals. Not sure why, because I work with both in my films and love the experience,” he tells Daily Paws. “I’ve been very lucky to make movies on two continents and worked with 20+ different animals in the process. The people who train the animals are 100 percent dedicated to them—many of the people I work with train one type of animal only.”
Boddington decided on the Alaskan malamute breed for Chinook because he needed a dog that would be large, beautiful to look at, and imposing when it came to challenging a wolf, bear, or mountain lion. He’s featured the character of Chinook in two previous films, Against the Wild and Against the Wild: Survive the Serengeti.
He says the bonds viewers see between the animal and human actors are real. “When Steve [Byers] falls under the log and is trapped, you see Iikona’s real reaction to that moment. Iikona is just beside himself because he thinks Steve is really hurt,” Boddington says. “Iikona was confused that none of the humans watching this unfold were willing to help. Of course, those humans were the film crew behind the camera. He was sure Steve was hurt and needed help. It was amazing to watch.”
Arthur, who plays Max in the film, tells Daily Paws that it was super fun working with Iikona. “He’s a great actor, actually. He responds really well to food, so that usually works,” he says. “The longer we spent on set, the more we all got to bond with the cast and crew, and especially the wonderful Iikona.” Arthur loves working with dogs, too, and his family has four of them.
Boddington believes it’s only natural that we all root for hero dogs, both in film and in real life. “In writing these scripts, I instill in the animal characters the qualities we most love,” he says. “Of course the audience is going to cheer for a dog that wants to help a blind man out of the wilderness. The quality we most love in ‘movie animals’ is their willingness to put themselves in danger to save humans. And in real life, service dogs and police dogs do this every day.”
He’s also worked extensively with elephants for another film, An Elephant’s Journey, but has no plans to work with cats. “I have owned many cats, and they were lovely fun animals to have around. You can play with them in a way you can’t play with a dog,” he says. “However, I just don’t think cats are cut out for film work the way dogs and elephants are.” (Perhaps we can change his mind by pointing him toward more adventurous cats and heroic kitties?)
During a time when we’re still in recovery mode from all the events of 2020, maybe settling in for family entertainment that we’re almost certain has a happy ending is the right place to be. Arthur says a message from the film that really resonates with him is “if you have courage and drive, you can do anything.”
Boddington agrees. “I hope people will come away with a feeling that even though things look bleak, through determination, we can come out okay on the other side, eventually.” We’ll take an hour or two of that!
And extra Daily Paws pats to him, as he lost his beloved family dog, Minta, shortly before this interview. A 13-year-old Bichon Frise–shih tzu mix, he says his whole family was devastated. “She was part of our family in every way. The saddest part of dog ownership is the day they leave you.”
But his son has a rescued red-eared slider turtle that lives happily “in a giant 40-gallon aquarium with his own personal sun pad.” Boddington says this turtle breed lives 50 years and that the family won’t be saying goodbye to him for a while.
Wonder if we’ll see him in a film anytime soon?