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Director Boaz Yakin — along with his co-writer, Sheldon Lettich — were already halfway to a solid family film by making a boy and his dog the central theme of "Max," which tells the story of a family that takes in a military dog traumatized after a tragedy.

You have to be pretty cold-hearted not to get pulled into the concept.

What can make this idea better or worse is how well the director brings the story to life. In the case of "Max," Yakin sniffs out many of the elements to win over viewers even more. But he also has some moments that feel like a walk through the backyard — in your bare feet — where a big dog lives.

The first big key is the casting. It sounds weird, but the best actor in "Max" is the dog. The early moments have Max leading a group of soldiers into hostile situations. This isn't a Hollywood gimmick as thousands of dogs have been used in war.

Multiple Belgian Malinois were used during the filming and their combined efforts result in a well-rounded performance. Max comes across as being rightfully mad when someone he loves is threatened. The dog also can get across the idea of loving and caring.

Humans not so good: The fact the dog is so good is a big bonus.

It needs those points since Josh Wiggins, who plays rebellious teen Justin, can't make the emotion work. He's fine in the scenes where he's playing with and training Max. But when he has to be a troublemaker, the dog acts circles around him.

Wiggins is lucky Thomas Haden Church was cast as his father. His performance is just the right mix of tough and tender to elevate scenes where Wiggins flounders. The usually dependable Lauren Graham gives it her best shot, but her Texas accent is painful.

Script problems: Yakin does a good job with the direction, a task that's never easy when working with animals. His only problems come out of the script that he helped write with Lettich.

The opening military sequence is rushed, especially when later the movie hits a mid-point with bike-riding scenes that just keep going. Kids on bicycles aren't that interesting unless they are competing or carrying an alien in the front basket.

The other glitches in the script are Justin's biking buddies. Carmen (Mia Xitlali) has trouble pulling off the tough girl act, and her cousin, Chuy (Dejon LaQuake) is forced to find life in a character filled with every negative stereotype. He's written so poorly that even in a situation where he could die, the character doesn't remember he has a cellphone.

Big emotions: Yakin pulls out all the emotional big guns — from a hero's funeral to a closing musical number that will make you want to leave the theater waving a huge flag. Neither is wrong, it's just an easy way to play on emotions.

That's really the story of this film. The combination of the bond between a boy and his dog, the salute to the military, a grieving family and the emotional upheavals of a father and son are the cornerstones of this tearjerker.

The director falls back on those basics too often, and that leaves "Max" a good film that doesn't strive for more.

If you are looking for a film suitable for almost all ages, then sit, stay and watch "Max."

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