So this really happened: about 10 years ago, a farmer in Australia trained one of his Maremma sheepdogs, which had been guarding chickens, to instead protect a colony of endangered penguins that was being decimated by foxes. It was a huge success, and the colony is now thriving. I suspect some aspects of the true story have been embellished for the delightful Oddball and the Penguins — “a fairy tale that really happened” — but that first dog really was called Oddball, and that farmer really is actually named Swampy Marsh. Here, in the town of Warrnambook on Australia’s southeastern coast, Swampy (Shane Jacobson: The Dressmaker) and his gradeschooler granddaughter, Olivia (Coco Jack Gillies: Mad Max: Fury Road), plot secretly behind the back of his daughter/her mother, Emily (Sarah Snook: Steve Jobs), who works for the penguin conservation effort and is despairing at all the losses to the foxes. Not only are the tiny “fairy penguins” absolutely adorable, of course, but if the penguins all die, her job goes away, and if that happens, she’s threatening to move herself and Olivia to New York with her boyfriend, Bradley (Alan Tudyk: Trumbo), a tourism consultant who may covet the penguins’ home for the site of a whale-watching center that would save his job. The “is Bradley a villain?” subplot is surely one of those embellishments, not that it isn’t always fun to watch Tudyk sputtering. And I imagine the Rube Goldberg slapstick has been invented, because that never really happens in real life, does it? The shenanigans mostly feature Oddball, who is a Bad Dog who causes Much Trouble about town and who is down to his Last Chance to redeem himself; another maybe-villain is the local dog catcher (Frank Woodley), who of course has it in for Oddball. Will Olivia and Swampy’s training of Oddball — who has fallen in love with the little penguins at first sight — save everything? Of course it will. How we get to the foregone happy ending is sweet, silly, and charming. And if it gets kids interested in conservation, even better.
Learn more about the penguin-protection project and the Maremma dogs at Warrnambook Penguins.