Strays of both the kiddie and canine varieties long for a place to call home as Lois Duncan's Scholastic paperback is adapted for the big screen courtesy of director Thor Freudenthal. Dog lovers will quickly warm to the story of two orphaned siblings who put the needs of their beloved pooch, Friday, before their own -- even when it means incurring the wrath of their selfish foster parents -- and kids will get a kick out of watching the visually inventive story unfold as the four-legged guests file in and the brother-sister duo crafts a series of Rube Goldberg contraptions to ensure that their furry friends are well cared for.
Andi (Emma Roberts) and Bruce (Jake T. Austin) may not have much, but they've still got each other, and their loyal dog, Friday, is always happy to see them. Unfortunately, Andi and Bruce's aging, wannabe rock star foster parents (Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon), aren't too keen on pets, a complication that poses a rather weighty problem for the two young dog lovers. They see Friday as a member of their diminished family, and they aren't willing to give him up just to live in a place where they're barely tolerated anyway. The kids are already on the verge of getting kicked out when they're busted for running a small scam in order to earn a little extra spending money. Thankfully, Andi and Bruce have a friend in dedicated social worker Bernie (Don Cheadle), who helps to sweep their latest misdeed under the rug. One night, while taking Friday for a walk, Andi and Bruce are nearly trampled by thieves bolting out from a darkened alley. When the police roll up, cherries flashing and sirens blaring, the kids duck into an abandoned hotel for fear of being blamed for a crime they didn't commit. Happening across a pair of dogs who have made the hotel their makeshift home, the quick-thinking duo decides that this would be the perfect place for Friday to live as well. It isn't long before every stray in the city has booked a room, though with each additional guest their secret becomes increasingly difficult to keep. With more than a little help from animal-loving pet-store employees Dave (Johnny Simmons) and Heather (Kyla Pratt), not to mention fearless neighborhood kid Mark (Troy Gentile), Andi and Bruce transform the disheveled hotel into a fully automated resort that any pup would be proud to call home.
Stealthily averting more serious questions about why the kids are on their own as the story is set up, screenwriters Jeff Lowell, Robert Schooley, and Mark McCorkle instead focus on the philosophy that sometimes we have to make our own families in life, and that it pays to think creatively while attempting to solve problems. While those messages may be obvious to the adult viewer, they're conveyed with just the right amount of subtlety to prevent them from seeming heavy-handed for the target audience and, with the occasional exception, director Freudenthal and editor Sheldon Kahn keep the action moving quickly enough to give the proceedings a spirited pace. Likewise, there's plenty of imaginative eye candy thanks to photographer Michael Grady's acrobatic lens, a component that helps breathe playful life into the functional contraptions dreamt up by budding young inventor Bruce. It's nice to see Cheadle take a break from heavy-lifting cinema in order to have a little fun on the big screen, while Kudrow and Dillon are obviously having a blast in their own roles as the musically challenged foster parents who would rather rehearse than raise kids. It all adds up to an agreeable family flick that, while never really breaking any new ground cinematically or story-wise, manages to deliver some positive messages -- and plenty of adorable dogs -- in an energetic and perfectly enjoyable 100 minutes.