Set against the backdrop of America’s entry into World War I and based on the incredible, true story of the unbreakable bond between a stray dog and a young Soldier, Sgt. Stubby: An Unlikely Hero tells the real-life story of America’s most decorated dog, Sgt. Stubby, showing the world the true meaning of dedication, loyalty, bravery and heroism.
With the “War to End All Wars” looming, the life of Army “doughboy” Robert Conroy (Logan Lerman, Fury, Perks of Being a Wallflower, Percy Jackson & The Olympians) is forever changed when a little stray dog with a stubby tail wanders into training camp in New Haven, Conn. Conroy gives his new friend a meal, a name, a family and a chance to embark on an adventure that would define a century.
Narrated by Robert’s sister Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter, the upcoming Ocean’s 8, the Harry Potter films, The King’s Speech, Sweeney Todd), Stubby and his new best friend quickly find themselves in the trenches of France. Befriended by French poilu Soldier Gaston Baptiste (Gérard Depardieu, Life of Pi, Cyrano De Bergerac, The Man in the Iron Mask, Green Card), Stubby accompanies the duo along their epic journey through harsh conditions and incredible acts of courage.
As combat rages around them, Stubby keeps the trenches vermin-free, alerts his comrades-in-arms of incoming attacks, rescues the wounded in No Man’s Land and even catches a German spy! Back home, his exploits make the front pages of newspapers across the country and steal the heart of the nation.
For valorous actions above and beyond his small stature, Stubby is recognized as the most decorated dog in history and the first dog promoted to the rank of Sergeant in the U.S. Army, showing the world that the greatest heroes can come from the unlikeliest of places.
In Sgt. Stubby: An Unlikely Hero, Fun Academy Motion Pictures brings the early 20th century back to life for audiences of all ages to enjoy. But just as the real Stubby’s journey took him from homeless mutt to celebrated Soldier, his animated counterpart’s journey to the big screen has been quite the adventure … a story nearly a decade in the making.
In 2010, historical filmmaker Richard Lanni began research for a WWI-themed documentary with an eye towards the Great War’s centennial in 2018.
This new documentary was to be a follow-up to Lanni’s successful WWII series, The American Road to Victory, which is, to date, the most-aired WWII-themed program in American public television history. The WWI documentary, tentatively titled Over There: Doughboys in the Great War, was to be produced in partnership with the National Infantry Museum Foundation and would follow several different historical figures through the American experience of their first major overseas conflict.
In the process, however, Lanni stumbled across the tale of a small, stray dog from Connecticut and immediately knew that he had found something truly special.
“Around the world, World War I is better remembered. In some areas of France, it’s perhaps still more significant today than the second World War,” Lanni explains. “But in the U.S., it’s a long-forgotten war and period of American history. My goal was to find real stories that embodied the American experience at that time … Real characters that modern audiences, especially kids, could relate to. And that’s where I found Stubby.”
After five years of traditional documentary filmmaking, Lanni now aimed to reach a much wider audience and bring this vital chapter of American history back into the popular consciousness through animation and the eyes of a dog. “I realized,” says Lanni, “we can tell all of this history through the eyes of a small, homeless dog adopted off the streets of Connecticut and given a chance to help his friends in times of crisis. He embodies the American experience during that time.”
Adds Jordan Beck, assistant producer and voice actor in Sgt. Stubby, “It’s important to remember that, at the time of America’s declaration of war in 1917, there wasn’t a strong sense of national identity. For the first time, the young men and women of our country – including an immigrant population from around the world – were mustered into service under one flag, in one uniform and sent overseas to fight a war on behalf of our allies.”
Richard Lanni is a historical filmmaker – producing, writing and directing for cinema, television and home media – and is the founder of Fun Academy Media Group, Ltd. (formerly Labyrinth Media & Publishing), operating from his homes in Cork, Ireland, and Normandy, France, with production and distribution offices headquartered in Columbus, Ga.
Following a successful career in business, Lanni pursued his passion at film school with a goal of making fun, engaging, educational media for mass markets. Prior to Fun Academy, Lanni found success in documentary production. His series The American Road to Victory tells the story of three key engagements in the European theater of World War II – D-Day, Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge – from the perspective of the G.I.s who fought to end Nazi tyranny.
Conscious that many documentaries were too dry and academic, he was determined to find a style that crossed over to general family audiences. Through a clever mixture of live-action narration, special effects and on-location reenactment, he found a way to engage audiences who had turned their back on the genre. To date, The American Road to Victory is the most aired WWII series of all time on American public television with over 6,000 broadcasts since 2012. It has been licensed to 20 foreign territories and was recently acquired for VOD by Netflix.
Lanni is also an accomplished battlefield tour guide as well as a media production partner with the National Infantry Museum Foundation at Fort Benning, Georgia. It was during research for a WWI series that Lanni discovered Sgt. Stubby. Shifting away from his documentary instincts, he realized that the best way to reach families with this incredible true story would be through animation.
Being a first-time animation director, Lanni needed to find the right team to make this family-friendly WWI movie a reality, entering into an agreement with Technicolor, a global powerhouse in entertainment technology and animation, to handle the film’s animation through its subsidiary company, Mikros Animation (The Little Prince, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie).
Also, early on the decision was made to keep Stubby a non-verbal character. “All of the amazing things Stubby did in his life, he did without speaking a word,” Beck explains. “We wanted to be true to the real story of Stubby and the men with whom he served.”
The first talent to sign on was award-winning composer Patrick Doyle. “Music is an important part to any movie, but especially in the case of Sgt. Stubby,” Lanni says. “Patrick’s sensitive and emotional score conveys the danger of Stubby’s world – something that is important in a movie set during a war – without showing anything too graphic or violent for kids.” According to Doyle, “It is a wonderful emotional script and Stubby’s exciting adventures are a delightful gift for a composer to capture.”
For the human leads, finding the right voices was also paramount and Lanni enlisted Logan Lerman to voice Stubby’s owner, Robert Conroy. “We are very fortunate,” says Lanni, “to find an accomplished, young man like Logan who breathed such life into the story of an ordinary man and his ordinary dog who, together, perform extraordinary feats of valor.”
Through extensive research, Lanni discovered that the 102nd Infantry Regiment was mirrored in action by a regiment of French poilu infantry – Soldiers nicknamed after their often-unkempt beards and humorous, irreverent behavior belying immense courage – so he created the character of Gaston Baptiste, the battle-tested mentor to Conroy and Stubby in the trenches. “Through this incredible story of camaraderie between Sgt. Stubby and Conroy, we are also able to share the extraordinary tale of the American Doughboys and their French poilu allies,” Lanni says. “The poilu were courageous Infantrymen who spent years locked in trench warfare to protect their homes and families.”
Gaston is a larger-than-life character, a chef-turned-Soldier whose time in the trenches has not killed his indomitable spirit, so who better to voice this “bon vivant” than France’s most iconic living actor, Gérard Depardieu? “I am very happy to be a part of Sgt. Stubby, the first animated, family war movie ever to come to the U.S. box office,” Depardieu says. “It is a wonderful, sensitive script that still gives the viewer a feeling of this terrible war, a war which ravaged my country and most of the world.”
Signing on to narrate the film as Margaret O’Brien, Robert’s older sister and matriarch of the family, is Helena Bonham Carter, who provides a necessary familial quality, but also provides historical context about WWI. Margaret follows her brother’s exploits through his letters and newspaper articles featuring his heroic little dog. “I’m thrilled to be involved in Sgt. Stubby, a film that cannot fail to capture and touch the hearts of children through the courage of an incredible dog, whilst also introducing them to the all-important piece of history that was the first World War,” Bonham Carter shares.
Born into Hollywood’s Golden Age of Television, screenwriter Mike Stokey’s father was the creator and host of the landmark game show Stump the Stars.
Stokey is a combat veteran of the Vietnam War, serving with distinction in the U.S. Marine Corps. For more than 20 years, Stokey has served as a military technical advisor on dozens of Hollywood productions including Born on the Fourth of July, The Thin Red Line, Alexander and Tropic Thunder. He was also a key military advisor on the groundbreaking HBO series Band of Brothers and its follow-up, The Pacific.
In addition to his military works, Stokey has written more than 60 half-hour television shows for children, including episodes of the classic Saturday morning cartoon He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
As one of the first animated films to tackle a true story, Fun Academy and the Sgt. Stubby team are immensely respectful of the fact that, for nearly 100 years, Stubby has served as an icon of WWI and is seen as a precursor to the modern military’s working dog program.
As a testament to the power of the story, in December of 2015 – before production had even begun – Sgt. Stubby received the official endorsement of the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission as an official film project for the observance. Another of the movie’s early endorsers, the Connecticut State Library, explains the importance of the film: “Every town in Connecticut had men serving in the 102nd Infantry Regiment, so while this is the story of Sgt. Stubby, it is also the story of Connecticut’s Soldiers on the front.” Additionally, Sgt. Stubby: An Unlikely Hero has received endorsements from the National Infantry Museum Foundation and La Mission du Centenaire, the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission’s French counterpart.
Sgt. Stubby isn’t just the country’s most decorated military dog, he’s the most famous stray in American history, whose adoption off the streets has cultivated a massive following among the animal rescue and service dog communities. Fun Academy has created a partnership network of welfare organizations and educational institutions to create a grassroots campaign that taps into the pre-existing knowledge of Stubby’s story and legacy. Says Jacy Jenkins, director of partnerships and outreach for Fun Academy, “These animal organizations are in the trenches every day, helping dogs just like Stubby find a home and we want to give back to them.”
Through the eyes of a dog, Fun Academy hopes to bring this important chapter of American history to life for an audience of all ages.
A History of War Dogs
The earliest recorded use of canines in combat was by Alyattes of Lydia (now known as Turkey) against the Cimmerians around 600 B.C. War dogs were also used extensively by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Atilla the Hun even used giant dogs in his campaigns.
Dogs have fought alongside American forces in every conflict since the Revolutionary War, but only officially since World War II.
March 13th is National K9 Heroes Day in observation of the date in 1942 when the U.S. military officially established its War Dog Program or “K9 Corps.” The program is commemorating 76 years in 2018.
While Stubby is the most decorated war dog of World War I, the first canine movie star Rin Tin Tin is another famous dog with connection to the Great War, having been rescued by an American airman following the battle of Saint-Mihiel (in which Stubby’s Yankee Division took part).
No military around the world has used war dogs as extensively or as effectively as the United States.
Dogs were mostly used as message carriers and sentries during the first few conflicts but nowadays, they’re trained to perform a wide-range of highly-specialized tasks, including sniffing out bombs and drugs and tracking people. Some dogs even jump from planes and rappel from helicopters.
The U.S. military’s Working Dog program has approximately 2,500 dogs in service today, with about 700 serving at any given time overseas.
The U.S. military actually has puppy development specialists. They work with the carefully-selected puppies from the time they’re born until they begin their training at around 6-7 months of age. Only about 50% of dogs make it through training.
Every military working dog is a noncommissioned officer, at least in tradition. A dog is always one rank higher than its handler.