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‘Arthur The King’ Review: Mark Wahlberg's Winning Feelgood Dog Drama

“Arthur the King” suitably plays like an emotional endurance challenge. Director Simon Cellan Jones and screenwriter Michael Brandt, adapting Mikael Lindnord’s book “Arthur: The Dog Who Crossed the Jungle to Find a Home,” take us through the ups and downs of adventure racing. They put our stamina, tear-ducts and psychological well-being to the test as we watch a team of underdog athletes attempt to cross the finish line in record time after befriending an ailing, scruffy street mutt. Our palms sweat, our hearts palpitate, and our spirits brace themselves for a windfall of feelings in the final act. This true-life tale about perseverance, compassion and second chances cuts right to the quick. While it doesn’t stray from a predictable path, the journey is rarely dull, making our travels and these characters’ travails feel worthy of the big screen.

Michael Light (Mark Wahlberg) is his own worst enemy. He’s a man haunted by past failings — specifically his loss three years prior at the Adventure Racing World Championship in Costa Rica that left his team and their warring egos stranded in thick mud. His former teammate Helen (Juliet Rylance), now his wife, has given up that life to be a full-time mom to their cute-as-a-button young daughter Ruby (Cece Valentina). But Michael is like a dog with a bone, not wanting to let go of his dream of being a world champion. And since his obsession hasn’t waned, she encourages him to give it another go.

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Michael experiences an uphill battle garnering sponsorship and assembling his team of avengers. His stalwart navigator Chik (Ali Suliman) has a bad knee. His new recruit, rock climbing expert Olivia (Nathalie Emmanuel), is accepting the position primarily to make her father happy. And Michael must put aside his grudge match against narcissist teammate Leo (Simu Liu), whose social media following is the key to getting corporate endorsement. As the team finally shapes up in time for the competition — a five-to-ten-day, 435-mile course across treacherous terrain — in Santo Domingo, a mangy, street-savvy dog (played by canine actor Ukai) treks hundreds of miles through the jungle only to meet up with Michael at a scheduled pit stop. With their destinies now intertwined, and the name Arthur bestowed on our intrepid four-legged hero, the pair must trust in each other’s tenacity and intuition to survive.

Though dramatic embellishment is certainly to be expected, shifting the film’s narrative in years (from 2014 to 2018), locations (from Ecuador to the Dominican Republic) and team countries (from Sweden to the United States) doesn’t impact the fundamentals of Michael and Arthur’s meet-cute over meatballs, or their adoptive journey together. Despite the script’s prevalent lack of subtlety, telling us details and developments instead of showing through meaningful actions, there’s resonance in Michael’s nuanced turn from selfish to selfless via his newfound canine companionship. Their parallel struggles are intrinsically connected. The filmmakers keep dog peril on the sidelines, at least until the third act when Arthur’s wounds grow dire. These waterworks-inducing moments, alternating between sorrowful and joyful, arrive fast and furious, only momentarily alleviated by a smartly deployed f-bomb.

Cellan Jones and company give dramatic weight to the big action set pieces. And with good reason, as they are the propulsive element in a story focused not only on athleticism and competition, but also surmounting one’s own personal expectations. They capture humans’ fearless persistence and nature’s dangerous beauty in equal measure, whether the competitors are dangling from a zip-line (Gary Roach’s editing makes this visceral sequence’s stress level on par with the opening of “Cliffhanger”), scaling great heights or hiking rain-drenched jungles. Hand-held shots emphasize the intimacy and immediacy of scenes when team members’ tempers are fiery and frayed.

Some obstacles the film fails to surmount, with its female characterization lackluster at best. Emmanuel and Rylance make the most of their limited material, but they’re not miracle workers. While their male counterparts all experience different degrees of redemption, the women are there exclusively to serve those arcs. Olivia continually frets about her father’s terminal illness, which is later mansplained to the audience by Michael during his tender talk with her. Helen is essentially relegated to the thankless, tertiary role of Wife Who Waits At Home. Her greatest value is sporting athleisure wear and staring at a computer monitor so we can get a sense of the media’s involvement in sensationalizing Michael and Arthur’s unlikely friendship.

If indelible Movie Moments are in short supply, inevitably making Wahlberg and Ukai’s chemistry the true highlight, the film’s sentiments on selflessness nonetheless stand out. They’re a ringing testament to the powerful bond between man and dog, and a kind-hearted reminder that canine companionship can be a lifeline in troubled times.

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