Directed by Stephen Best
Starring Amanda Langille, Craig Martin, and Paul James Saunders.
90 minutes. $1.99 from Amazon Prime Video (rental) or $4.99 to purchase.
Produced by the Animal Alliance of Canada.
Reviewed by Merritt & Beth Clifton.
Bill Sikes, arch-villain of the 1838 Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, might justly be called one of Dickens’ immortal as well as most amoral characters.
According to Dickens, Sikes at about age 35 beat his girlfriend Nancy to death, tried to drown his pit bull Bullseye, lest Bullseye lead the police back to him, and accidentally hanged himself.
But 150 years, many stage and screen reappearances, and multiple gruesome deaths later, in both London and New York City, including by falls, drowning, and electrocution as well as hanging, Bad Bill returned in the 1988 Walt Disney film Oliver & Company as a loan shark approaching 60 years old, now spelling his name “Sykes,” and now intimidating victims with a pair of Dobermans.
Sikes/Sykes died again, of course, only to reincarnate briefly into his younger self in 1997, 2005, and 2007 stage and screen revivals.
Sikes/Sykes in the 2021 film Twist even passed for a bull dyke, but again ended up dead.
Back with a Newfie accent & a cricket bat
Yet here he is back again in 2022, played by John Lunman, with a Newfoundland accent, beating his son Danny (played by Eric Christiani) half to death with a cricket bat, in between stealing dogs and cats for sale to a university research lab, and for use as “bait” animals in a cartoonish version of a dogfighting ring, with no gambling money in sight.
Sykes’ resurrection is only one of a wealth of literary allusions in Saving Dinah, a 90-minute suspense drama produced by Stephen Best, copyrighted in 2016, filmed in 2018, but not actually released on Amazon Prime until 2022.
Backed by the Animal Alliance of Canada as a “message movie,” Saving Dinah is surprisingly light on preaching until the concluding speech by lead actress Amanda Langille.
Beats the 101 Dalmatians films
Langille plays Caroline Sheppard, a local businesswoman who runs for mayor in a small Ontario town, but whose campaign is distracted and derailed when her dog Dinah is stolen from her car by Sykes and son.
Sykes and son are not nearly as entertaining as Horace and Jasper, the Cockney dog thieves whose ineptitude, in combination with the suave self-centered villainy of Cruella DeVil, drives the original 1961 animated version of the Walt Disney classic 101 Dalmatians.
And there is no Cruella in Saving Dinah. Other than that, though, Saving Dinah compares quite favorably in most respects to the 101 Dalmatians series and sequels, including the critically acclaimed 1996 live action remake starring Glenn Close as Cruella and the 2000 live action 102 Dalmatians, which added Gérard Depardieu to the cast, but suffered from heavy-handed, yet garbled animal rights messaging and quite a lot else.
Barry Kent Mackay
The no-name volunteer actors and actresses peopling Saving Dinah, bluntly put, convincingly act rings around most of the Dalmatians series casts.
Among the Saving Dinah supporting cast may be recognized occasional ANIMALS 24-7 guest columnist Barry Kent Mackay, longtime nature writer, animal advocate, and wildlife artist, whose collaborations of various sorts with director Stephen Best and Animal Alliance of Canada president Liz White go back four decades.
A few words also must be said about the cinematography. Best manages to accomplish visually interesting scene after scene with a budget of nothing and no special effects using anything more elaborate than might be bought over the counter at Canada Tire, the leading Canadian hardware store chain.
Mark Twain in the shadows
The low-tech approach, necessitated by limited resources, puts the emphasis precisely where it needs to be: on the well-paced story line, and the character and scene development, with the messaging far enough in the background that even Mark Twain might have approved.
Twain famously prefaced his 1885 novel Huckleberry Finn with the warning that, “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”
Twain also infamously produced an anti-vivisection story, A Dog’s Tale, in 1903, which was, and remains, so immersed in self-conscious pathos as to be practically unreadable.
Best and co-author Barbara Kyle manage to maintain an even-tempered Ontario reserve even in the advocacy declarations of humane society director Heather Hodge, played by Heather Sessions, who comes across as exactly the sort of warm-hearted humaniac she is supposed to be,.
Using Caroline Sheppard’s search for Dinah the dog as cover, Hodge infiltrates and photographs a university laboratory animal holding facility, managing to get both herself and Sheppard arrested.
Hodge later takes in Sykes’ son Danny after Danny shoots Sykes’ pit bull to save the heroine, getting another cricket bat beating for his trouble.
At a guess, probably 90% of ANIMALS 24-7 readers will enjoy Saving Dinah, most of the rest don’t enjoy TV movies at all, and more important, probably anyone who enjoyed any of the 101 Dalmatians versions will love it, wondering why Disney Studios couldn’t do as well as a bunch of rural Ontario amateurs.
Of course these are not just any “amateurs.”
According to the Animal Alliance of Canada bio page, “Stephen Best’s involvement in the environmental and animal protection movement began in the early 1970s after the making of Seal Song, a documentary about the Canadian seal hunt he produced for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.”
Best, not to be confused with the American animal rights philosopher and activist Steven Best, went on to serve in executive capacities with Care for the Wild and the Toronto Humane Society, cofounded the International Wildlife Coalition, and cofounded the Animal Protection Party of Canada.
White, after several years with the Toronto Humane Society, working alongside Best and Mackay, became founding director of the Animal Alliance of Canada. White was also a cofounder of the Animal Protection Party of Canada.
Only one dog needed to be stolen to advance the plot
With all the above said and acknowledged, Saving Dinah needlessly repeats several longtime animal advocacy saws that were never true, and that the makers should have caught.
One is that “millions” of pets are stolen each year, mostly for use in biomedical research. This claim originated as an off-the-cuff remark by a Humane Society of the U.S. spokesperson in a Congressional hearing held five years preliminary to the 1966 passage of the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act.
The record-keeping requirements instituted by the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act demonstrated that total use of random-source dogs and cats in U.S. laboratories peaked at fewer than 300,000, more than 40 years ago, and ended for all practical purposes when the National Institutes of Health quit funding studies using random-source dogs and cats in 2014.
Many of the random-source dogs and cats formerly used in U.S. laboratories were imported from Canada, but the Pet Theft Act of 1990 ended that traffic, effective on February 18, 1993, when the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service used investigative work by ANIMALS 24-7 to shut down the last U.S. lab suppliers who were bringing in Canadian animals.
The myth of the “bait” animal
Saving Dinah also repeats the myth of the “bait animal,” dog or cat, purportedly stolen for use by dogfighters. Interestingly enough, this myth has repeatedly been refuted not only by ANIMALS 24-7 but also by the Animal Farm Foundation, the longtime voice of pit bull advocacy.
Certainly there are sadistic punks who steal pets to throw them to pit bulls for amusement, but this is not a routine practice of professional dogfighters, whose pit bulls need no “training” to begin killing each other even before they are weaned.
Finally, the term “puppy mill,” which specifically refers to a high-volume breeding operation, is misused to refer to a bunching operation. This completely loses the meaning of the metaphor, possibly the oldest still used in animal advocacy.
Various other holes may be found in the climactic portions of Saving Dinah, in which several characters seem to leave their brains at home before attempting either heroic or villainous actions.
The same, however, could also be said of the climactic portions of practically every thriller, and if every character always acted rationally, would action dramas even exist?
At $1.99 for 90 minutes’ entertainment, Saving Dinah is a deal.