Supposedly, thrillers involving airplanes are not shown as in-flight movies, so as to avoid causing anxiety. There should be a similar rule that movies like Hachi: A Dog's Tale are not to be shown on airplanes, so as to avoid causing embarrassment. I'm not sure that my bawling my eyes out in the middle of a trans-Pacific flight really helped anyone. If you choked up at Marley & Me last year, you may want to keep an ambulance on stand-by for Hachi, which was unceremoniously dumped onto DVD a couple of weeks ago.
Which is not to say that the movie is cruel in any way, or harsh. It is emphatically G-rated, and contains not a single instance of violence, against human or dog. Rather, the reason for the tears is simply that, even with that awkward title, Hachi: A Dog's Tale is one of the most shamelessly effective movies I've ever seen about the bond between man and canine.
Despite this, and despite the fact that it was directed by king of the middlebrow crowd-pleaser Lasse Hallström (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, Dear John) and stars Richard Gere and Joan Allen, the movie did not receive even a perfunctory theatrical release in the United States. I don't know why it received such treatment (the decision to send it straight to DVD was made last December; the movie has grossed over $40 million overseas), but I can speculate. It is too low-key, too uneventful. The first hour of the ninety-minute film simply depicts the friendship between Hachiko, a gorgeous akita puppy, and Richard Gere's kindly music professor, who found Hachiko at a train station and kept him despite his wife's half-hearted protests. What happens in the last half hour I will not say, but though it is as heart-rending and stirring as anything Hallstrom has ever done, it doesn't exactly bring down the house, excitement-wise.
But the reason the movie is special is precisely that it is elegant and quiet. Set to Jan A.P. Kaczmarek's gorgeous, lilting score, the movie flows; where Marley & Me amounted to a bunch of set pieces strung together, Hachi has none. And though Hachi has predictable mawkish tendencies, it indulges them only sporadically. The screenplay has its share of dramatics (the framing device, featuring a kid giving a "my hero" speech in front of his class, was probably a miscalculation), but more often it manages to tug at your heartstrings with simple slice-of-life vignettes and even simpler images: Hachi greeting Richard Gere at the train station; Gere vainly attempting to demonstrate how to play fetch.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Hachi is its resistance to anthropomorphizing the title canine, at least in the way that we're used to. Once he transcends puppyhood, Hachi himself is not particularly cute, or even lovable -- if anything, he seems thoughtful, contemplative. The movie makes clear that the bond between Hachi and its master isn't friendship as we understand it; there's something alien and inscrutable (and ultimately tragic) about it. Though the film is kid-safe, what happens in its last act is profoundly eerie. Hallstrom dutifully attempts to defuse the disquiet with an upbeat ending, but the uneasy feeling remains. This is a movie about a (grown-up) boy and his dog that asks you to give it some thought. Check it out.