Oddball would be far, far less interesting if it weren’t based on a true story. The tale of a small penguin preserve on Middle Island on the coast of Victoria, Australia is notable only for its basis in fact, bearing little in the way of pacing or complexity, but it does prove to be a competent and non-challenging children’s film.
Middle Island is a tiny island just off the coast of the Australian town of Warrnambool that can be reached on foot as a result of the relatively shallow water level between it and the mainland. It’s a wildlife preserve, home to breeding colonies of little penguins, the smallest species of penguin. The colony was plagued by fox attacks after the predators realised that they too could reach the island with relative ease, and the penguin population dwindled rapidly.
To the film: Oddball (who in real life is female but is presented here as male for some unknown reason), a Maremma Sheepdog belonging to a local chicken farmer nicknamed Swampy (Shane Jacobson; Kenny, The Dressmaker), is on thin ice after running amok in the streets of Warrnambool and inadvertently destroying a great deal of property. The local council is barely talked out of ordering the dog to be destroyed, leaving Oddball confined to Swampy’s farm. When the farmer finds a penguin whose wing has been injured in a fox attack, he takes it home to stitch it up, and becomes impressed when he witnesses Oddball’s almost paternal behaviour towards the animal after scaring off a fox.
Spurred by the knowledge that the preserve (his late wife and now his daughter’s life’s work) will close if the penguin population drops below ten, Swampy, along with his granddaughter Olivia (Coco Jack Gillies; Mad Max: Fury Road, Devil’s Playground) sets about training Oddball to serve as a watch dog on the island.
Oddball is carried on the backs of its talented cast, both human and more importantly animal. Kai the dog is a scene-stealer as the titular Oddball, and believe me I’m fully aware how ridiculous that sentence was. He’s the most important element of the movie and it’s because of the work of him and his trainers that Oddball seems like a legitimate solution to the problem. Kai’s a beautiful dog and the film picks up on a gentle and loving nature that could easily not have been captured. I’ve got no clue whether this is the work of the filmmakers or the dog’s actual temperament (maybe he’s a total jerk in real life) but the end result on the screen is a furry protagonist who’s easy to root for.
In addition to the canine acting talent, the movie scored a home run on its casting. The human dramatis personae are all well done by their perspective performers, with the exception perhaps of Frank Woodley (The Adventures of Lano & Woodley, Kath and Kimderella), who appears to think he’s in a totally different movie from the rest of his colleagues. Jacobson and Alan Tudyk (Firefly, Dollhouse) provide the best performances, with Jacobson perfectly inhabiting the slightly rough chicken farmer and Tudyk (best known internationally for his collaborations with Joss Whedon) serving as the sole American in the cast, a status that the movie uses at times to underline the difference between Australians and Americans (Olivia’s disgusted reaction to a peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches is priceless).
I’ve spent a lot of time on the cast because, quite frankly, the movie doesn’t have a huge amount going for it other than that. It’s a heart-warming story, for sure, but it’s hardly one with much narrative depth and the film relies heavily on it’s performers to carry it to a feature length runtime. There’s enough funny moments to be found in Peter Ivan’s (Kill and Tell, Barry’s Obsession) script and director Stuart McDonald (Playing House, Summer Heights High) has a keen eye for the material he’s been given, but there’s not a whole lot of substance beyond the initial premise. A cloying romance subplot fails to make any impact whatsoever, cheesy clichés abound and the less said about the bizarre foray the film takes into corporate espionage in the third act the better. When the adorable dog does adorable things the film hits its mark but everything on the periphery feels like an awful lot of chaff choking out the wheat.
Oddball is a simple and totally adequate children’s film. The admittedly adorable animals will likely prove a hit with the younger crowd (assuming they don’t think too much about all the off-screen penguin killing) and a talented human cast also keep the movie afloat, but there’s just not enough here. The real life story of Oddball and the penguins of Middle Island is a fascinating one, but there just isn’t enough of it to fill a feature length film.