Mark Wahlberg’s ‘Inspirational’ New Movie ‘Arthur the King’ Is a Real Dog

Courtesy of Lionsgate
Courtesy of Lionsgate

After 15 years, a beloved Saturday Night Live sketch has finally made it to the big screen. Now, technically speaking, Arthur the King, in theaters Mar. 15, is not affiliated with the long-running NBC sketch-comedy program. In spirit, however, this movie is a feature-length version of the 2008 sketch Mark Wahlberg Talks to Animals, only with the genuine article in place of Andy Samberg’s staccato impersonation. Strange, then, that this supposed heartwarmer also makes Samberg’s parody look more affable by comparison.

The real Wahlberg here plays another sort-of real guy: Michael Light, an Americanized version of Swedish athlete Mikael Lindnord. Like his loose inspiration, Michael has found his calling in adventure racing, a hardcore athletic competition where teams compete in multi-day contests, traversing great distances by some combination of running, climbing, biking, rowing, or other demanding feats. After 20 years in adventure racing—which sounds more like an expensive, sponsor-subsidized hobby than a sustainable professional sport—Michael has retreated to a restless and unsatisfying domestic life in Colorado, working for his father’s real estate company. But his endlessly supportive ex-athlete wife, Helena (Juliet Rylance), encourages him to take one last shot at glory.

Eager to prove himself, Michael quickly assembles a squad: Aging pal Chik (Ali Suliman), expert climber Olivia (Nathalie Emmanuel), and semi-nemesis Leo (Simu Liu), a self-promoting social-media obsessive who was on Michael’s previous, ill-fated team. Meanwhile, in an amusing bit of crosscutting, director Simon Cellan Jones (The Family Plan, also starring Wahlberg) checks in on the life of the dog who will later be dubbed Arthur, a mutt on the streets of Santo Domingo. Eventually, the dog crosses paths with Michael’s team on their punishing odyssey, and becomes an improbable de facto fifth member of the group.

The general character arc seems clear from a distance: Michael, who is briefly seen torpedoing his previous race with thoughtless stubbornness, will learn some humility, humanity, and loyalty through this selfless creature. He’s really the one who rescued me, and so forth. Instead, the movie becomes so immersed in the can-do determination of the Wahlberg persona that this change never really registers as character growth. Michael just seems obsessed with Arthur because he’s able to offer a degree of devotion—and deference—that weak, disobedient humans sorely lack. Now here is a dog, he seems to be thinking, who’d be up for the much-circulated Wahlberg Morning Routine.

A photo still from Arthur and the King
Carlos Rodriguez/Lionsgate

Arthur the King has a few thrilling moments in its gauntlet of sport-suffering. Its outdoorsy competition provides a welcome excuse for the genuine location shooting often sorely lacking from bigger-budget studio movies, and a sequence involving a zipline is a neat survival movie in miniature. What’s more, Arthur the dog gets a cute little chase scene all to himself before he meets up with the good humans. Kids might enjoy the quasi-athletic straightforwardness of the story—and may not notice the family-man piousness that has seeped into Wahlberg’s work of late.

The former rapper, underwear model, and teenage hate-crimer has long been eager to showcase the gentle nice guy underneath his hard-man exterior; this goes at least as far back as 1998’s gleefully amoral action-comedy The Big Hit, which cast him as an improbably people-pleasing hitman. But Wahlberg tends to be at his best when he’s allowed to play an undisguised prick (as in The Departed) or reveal a little-boy woundedness (used, to equally great effect, in movies as varied as Boogie Nights, I Heart Huckabees, and The Other Guys) rather than outright heroism. His worst movies beg the audience to feel re-surprised, stirred, and inspired by his scruffy humanity, even when it really just amounts to basic human decency. In Arthur the King, there’s not much thrill in seeing his wife wait by the computer as he pets a dog and gets marginally nicer. No one ever asks why Helena, also a veteran of adventure racing, feels so much more sated by raising the couple’s child than Michael does. (She appears to take solace in wearing her sports bra everywhere.)

Wahlberg hasn’t quite reached the levels of perverse martyrdom that informs so much of the earlier work of his pal Mel Gibson. Perhaps his projects would be more consistently interesting if he did. Regardless, there’s a strain of vaguely Catholic self-punishment throughout this family-friendly man-and-his-dog story—“Suffering is a skill,” Michael says early on about his version of athletic prowess—that somehow isn’t accompanied by any actual soul-searching. The other human characters have challenges that are introduced and developed with laughable thinness, ready to be dropped as soon as Arthur is in danger. The movie’s suspense ultimately derives less from overcoming obstacles in any specific way than prompting the audience to make a secular prayer for Wahlberg’s character to find happiness. Maybe Arthur the King isn’t about Mark Wahlberg talking to animals after all. Maybe he’s just talking to himself.

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