Films starring live-action animals don't need to be trite, corny, or minimalistic. For each Air Bud and Marley and Me, schmaltzy trash employing pets as endearing bait and for unearned dramatic leverage, there's a Homeward Bound or Babe: Pig in the City, thoughtful, imaginative films which look into animals as topics worthy of admiration and at the very least some measure of seriousness. White God would appear to inhabit the latter camp, winning the Prize Un Certain Regard at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival—in addition to the slightly less respected Palme Dog Award for its animal cast. But Kornél Mundruczó's tale of relief and redemption is far less distinctive than its high-culture trimmings would signify, an amorphous allegory that's part canine spin on Hitchcock's The Birds, part art-house Benji, never going past a fundamental conceiving of animals as friendly, attention-grabbing blank-slate symbols.
The film really suffers in comparison with Sam Fuller's 1982 masterpiece White Dog -- about the struggle of a dog trainer, who is black, trying to retrain a stray dog found by a young actress, that is a "white dog"—a dog trained to viciously attack any black person. Fuller uses the film as a platform to deliver an anti-racist message as it examines the question of whether racism is a treatable problem or an incurable condition. Mundruczó's film gives good face, but doesn't reach the level of something more thoughtful like Fuller's film did.
After her mother and stepfather take off for a 90 day break to Australia, teenaged Lili (Zsófia Psotta) stays with father Daniel (Sándor Zsótér), a humorless grump in charge of approval-stamping cow carcasses for the local slaughterhouse. Sparked on by a nosy neighbor and an unexplained tax on "mongrel" mixed breeds, Daniel forces Lili to abandon her beloved hound, Hagen, dumping him unceremoniously alongside the highway. The psychological movement of the film is then torn off into two similar halves, the human dilemma of Lili's steady stiffing by teenage experience interchanging with the predicament of the nice Hagen, who's forced fixed into a form of untamed vehemence, pushed through a gauntlet of mistreatment by a series of atrocious new masters.
The loved canine, of course, will have his day, and while White God affects prolonged takes and a general air of artistically prone actuality, the Hungarian film is mostly engaged with creating strain via a steady development of dully created misery. As Lili flirts with boys and experiments with booze, Hagen encounters off against mean dog-fighting managers and cruel kill-shelter overlords, ultimately orchestrating the massive breakout of the shelter's dogs, who then overrun the full metropolis. This is White God's magnum opus, an explosion of animal energy which permits the voiceless dispossessed to fight back against the society which has poked them to the margins.
Nonetheless while the vast, freeform choreography of these scenes is without question wondrous, the potential for healing release is weaken by the fact that the outcome seems so predetermined, the compulsory feel-good capper on the process of mistreatment and deprivation that's alternately discovered the film's tough bona fides. Mundruczó has little grab on cumulative horror or action orchestration, and so the specific circumstances of anarchy operate only as isolated instances of vision, more of the same empty showiness that too often occurs with the parading about of animals on screen.
These hints of dreariness are found as Hagen and Lili reunite, via a fairy-tale ending that wipes off any prolonged suggestion of edginess or inventiveness. Mundruczó has made the error of creating a film about k-9s that neither takes any concern in the life of the animal as an actual subject neither considers its extensive weight as a metaphorical one. Unlike Babe, whose tranquil, respectable pain served as a means of taking a look at style and suffering in a world riven by inexplicable callousness, White God is a robotic, sympathy-wrenching machine that attracts all its potential from portraying the visceral terrors of mistreatment, its allegorical underpinnings tacked on almost as an afterthought. The depiction of an underworld of sniping bad guys, all ready to ultimately get their comeuppance, guarantees that any study of evil or wrongdoing never moves beyond cartoonish stereotype, leading to a film that's closer in essence to Beethoven compared to anything meriting major artistic consideration.