The power of imagination and our eagerness to be transported by it is a wonderful thing, is it not? At one point in this cracking movie, the dog Oddball has gone missing and his distraught owner, Swampy (Shane Jacobson), is seen wandering the cliffs near Warrnambool, calling his name. The mood is fraught, the packed cinema holding its breath, hoping that that no harm has come to the loveable white mutt. Then, from near the front row, a plaintive little voice cries ‘Oddball!’ This is the true story of how a colony of fairy penguins living on a small island off the coast of Victoria was saved from the predation of foxes by a lumbering long-haired Maremma sheepdog. Of course, there needs to be more to it than that to make a story out of it and Peter Ivan’s script weaves romance, comedy and mystery (I didn’t guess the ‘reveal’) through the narrative in equal measure. Jacobson, as in Kenny, exudes warmth and genuineness – he is possibly the only actor in Oz who could get away with ‘whacko-the-diddlo’ (a blast from the past). As a result, you can’t help but care about him, his single-mum daughter Emily (Sarah Snook) and doting granddaughter Olivia (Coco Jack Gillies).
The necessary conflict is with those who scheme to have the island’s status as a sanctuary abandoned in favour of turning it into a whale-viewing site. Director Stuart McDonald never wallows in the bathos that marred Red Dog and, as well as capturing some beautiful shots of the rugged coastline, cinematographer Damian Wyvill displays a painterly eye with the green-screen, managing to evoke in the island scenes an old-fashioned secretive atmosphere reminiscent of the Famous Five – and there is also a hint of Gerald Durrell in the cosiness of the tale-telling. Naysayers and connoisseurs will scoff that the Disney-type depiction of animals is juvenile bunk, but surely anything at all that opens young minds to the plight of the world’s vanishing wildlife is to be applauded. I loved it.