Friday, March 29, 2019

Superpower Dogs: Ruff 'n' ready

Superpower Dogs (2019) • View trailer 
Four barks. Rated G, and suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang

IMAX filmmakers certainly know how to make a dramatic entrance.

Cinematographer Reed Smoot opens Superpower Dogs with a vertiginous, giant-screen shot guaranteed to terrify viewers with an aversion to heights: a drone’s-eye view of a lunatic skier glancing over the edge of a tall, snow-covered precipice at the Canadian Rockies’ Whistler Blackcomb resort.

After a brief pause, he schusses off. (Madness!)

Halo and her handler/trainer, "Cat" Labrada
Jaw-dropping as that is, the money shot is yet to come. Having miscalculated the avalanche potential, and now buried somewhere in the snow at the bottom — a scenario we assume has been fabricated for this film — the victim’s best hope for survival helicopters into the frame: dangling, James Bond-style, at the end of a looooong winched cable.

Meet Henry and Ian: seasoned members of the Canadian Avalanche Search and Rescue team.

Henry’s the one with four legs. Border Collie by breed, life-saver by training.

Writer/director Daniel Ferguson’s film is both dramatic and deeply touching: a long-overdue valentine to the fur-covered companions who’ve steadfastly been friend and protector for millennia. The title comes from the extraordinary strength, endurance and — most notably — sensory capabilities that make dogs … well … super.

As is true of all the best IMAX documentaries, Superpower Dogs blends engaging characters and storytelling with easily digested science lessons. The latter’s high points are ingenious visualizations of a rescue dog’s powerful muscles and skeletal frame, along with the fine-tuned complexities of an unerring sense of smell we scarcely can conceive … even after being shown how it works.

Henry is but one of the half-dozen dogs profiled in this 45-minute film, and he definitely works in the most visually dazzling environment. Not the most spectacular, though; that distinction goes to twin bloodhounds Tony and Tipper, who help well-armed rangers track poachers that threaten the endangered animals — and human residents — within Kenya’s massive Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.

Given only the lingering scent from a muddy boot print — a mere impression in the soil, mind you, not the boot itself — Tony and Tipper can track its owner for miles, and over the course of days. Their evidence is actually admissible in Kenyan courts, making them the only member of the animal kingdom with the authority to testify in a trial.

Simply stunning.

Henry, Tony and Tipper notwithstanding, Ferguson spends most of his film following another dog from birth: Halo, runt in a litter of 10 Dutch Shepherd puppies. She’s selected for disaster response training by Fire Capt. “Cat” Labrada of Florida Task Force 1, one of America’s most elite search and rescue teams.

Over the course of two years, Cat works tirelessly with her initially mischievous “devil dog,” transitioning quickly to specialized “Disaster City” training facilities in Texas, Georgia and Tennessee. The goal throughout: to teach Halo how to ignore everything else — food, toys, abandoned clothes, people moving about — while using her nose to find a person who can’t be seen, buried beneath rubble and debris.

Seeing Halo develop the necessary focus is fascinating enough; watching her scramble nimbly over mangled steel, glass, concrete and other debris — forever advancing, with the unerring skill of a mountain goat — is flat-out breathtaking.

Henry is this film’s ostensible narrator, and Ferguson’s playfully witty script is constructed with a dog’s sensibilities in mind. The actual narrator is Captain America himself — Chris Evans — whose presence feels just right alongside an animated title credits sequence that references numerous Marvel superheroes.

The essential message: Those characters are wish-fulfillment fantasy creations, but we’re constantly surrounded by actual superheroes, in the form of Henry and his four-legged cousins.

We also meet Reef, a Newfoundland water rescue dog based in Milan, Italy; her partner is Commandante Ferruccio Pilenga, who in 1989 founded the Italian School of Water Rescue Dogs. He came to this career as a means of paying it forward: Reef’s grandmother, Mas, saved Pilenga’s daughter and her friend from drowning.

All of these pooches are awesome, but Ferguson saves the emotional gut-punch for last. At first blush, Ricochet’s “talent” appears to be … surfing. That’s impressive enough, and we can’t help being delighted by footage of Ricochet riding (admittedly modest) waves while balanced on a board.

But Ricochet actually is a therapy dog — the genuine article, as opposed to the frauds far too many people currently demand to bring onto planes — who debuted her skill for emotional support back in 2009, when she independently jumped onto a surfboard to help calm a quadriplegic boy determined to experience the thrill.

Since then, Ricochet has helped hundreds of people, one of whom is introduced in this film: former Marine Persons B. “Griff” Griffith, whose crippling PTSD has been eased by this magic dog. Ricochet recognizes the ambient stimuli — sudden noises or movement — likely to startle Griff into an episode, and “warns” him early enough to ease the potential shock.

This has enabled Griff to interact more comfortably with people, which in turn encouraged him to become one of the “support humans” working alongside Ricochet. Her primary mission is as a “SURFice dog” who helps empower and improve the quality of life for individuals with physical, cognitive or emotional disabilities. We watch Ricochet and Griff help a young boy — burdened by a condition that makes him terrified of environmental stimuli — overcome his fears, to successfully surf on a board with his four-legged guardian.

As the saying goes, there won’t be a dry eye in the house.

The narrative also pays attention to the dedicated people who’ve trained these marvelous animals; they’re an equal part of the equation. And Ferguson avoids the grim implications of a few of these working environments; no mention is made, for example, of the danger faced by Kenyan tracking dogs such as Tony and Tipper, from poachers determined to kill them.

Back in the States, Ferguson builds Halo’s saga to the crunch point: In order to become certified for the Florida Task Force 1 team, she must pass a final “Disaster City” test by finding six buried “victims” within 20 minutes.

As to whether she succeeds … you’ll just have to watch the film.

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