First, an essential spoiler: the dog lives.
“Prey,” the Hulu Originals film, has injected life into the “Predator” franchise. A prequel to the four previous films about malicious alien, trophy-seeking hunters, it’s set in 1719 on the Northern Great Plains. It centers a young Comanche hunter and tracker named Naru (Amber Midthunder), determined to become a warrior and protect her tribe, be it from big cats, white men or an invisibility-cloaked threat from space. Importantly, the film has also introduced a cute dog.
Naru’s near-constant companion Sarii (Coco) is a breed known as a carolina dog. Tan-colored with large, perky ears, breeds such as Sarii don’t have the highest “trainability level,” according to the American Kennel Club, and Midthunder would have to agree, describing her canine co-star as “a little bit of a hot mess.”
But she’s our mess. Coco as Sarii is earnest, believable and endearing. We need a female lead like the incredibly engaging Midthunder. We need a dog. And we need the dog to make it.
From the beginning of film, dogs have been there. A dog steals the show in Thomas Edison’s 1894 film “Athlete with Wand,” simply by sleeping and appearing disinterested. A stray dog appears alongside the action in the Lumière brothers’ “Le Faux cul-de-jatte.” The wandering on set of random, stray dogs was apparently not uncommon.
But like damsels, even early on dogs are often in distress. In 1904’s “Dog Factory,” dogs become sausages, though we don’t see the terrible act. Fast-forward more than a hundred years, and endangering dogs and cats is still a major plot device. RIP, Mews of “Stranger Things”; we hardly knew you. And that’s the point: often, the death of an animal serves as an easy shorthand to a character’s viciousness. How cruel are they? Cruel enough to kill a dog.
In 1987’s “Benji the Hunted,” the lovable, strappy Benji is pursued by a heartless hunter. Even dogs that reach a natural death in the movies, like “Marley & Me,” adapted from the 2005 memoir, do so with considerable pathos. Anyone reading this who watched “Old Yeller” as a child was likely at least vaguely traumatized by its rabies plot. So many dog characters die or are killed on screen, the website Does The Dog Die? was created several years ago to provide premature details, steering animal lovers away from distressing media or at least mentally preparing them.
Dakota Beavers as Taabe and Amber Midthunder as Naru in “Prey” (David Bukach/20th Century Studios)It’s difficult to concentrate when you know the dog might die and often, do so violently. “I’m out,“ were my son’s words when a cat dies, viciously, in 2022’s “Firestarter” remake (full disclosure: we were all checked out of that slow film long before). The dog’s death in “They/Them” feels so inexplicable, it’s hard to stay with the story. Worrying about an innocent animal’s fate can take you out of the world of the fiction and make you abruptly question motive. It’s a destabilizing effect.
It’s also easy emotional manipulation of an audience.
Coco is not a professional dog; she simply plays one on TV.
“Prey” does a good job of reassuring us about the dog, even though it may have been inadvertent. Sarii wasn’t supposed to be as big a part of the film, according to Midthunder and director Dan Trachtenberg. But in early screenings, everybody kept asking about that dog. As Trachtenberg says in an article with The A.V. Club: “Everyone as we were developing it and showing cuts to friends and family, was like, ‘More dog! We love the dog!’ I was like, ‘You don’t understand. We are using every usable frame of this dog.'”
Coco is not a professional dog; she simply plays one on TV. Adopted in order to be in the movie — her breed is believed to be a type of dog used by Indigenous people at the time the film is set — apparently she lacked the long training many showbiz dogs go through. And their discipline. She would wander into action scenes, according to cast and crew. Like the football player I was frequently cast alongside in high school theater, she had difficulty finding her mark.
She was also just happy to be there.
By including her in most of the film, the dog feels present in most of Naru’s life and the life of her tribe.
As Midthunder said: “So much of Coco being around was her running wild and doing laps and so excited to see everyone all the time. For me, personally, she was a dream. For making a movie, you know.” That excitement comes through the film in the dog’s eyes, which are bright and shining, her big ears alert as old TV antennae. (Frankly, her ears should get their own billing.)
She’s not perfect. Coco apparently messed up on set ,and Sarii does onscreen. She’s by her hunter’s side always, but not when Naru needs the dog for some “The NeverEnding Story”-type assistance. (You were likely traumatized by that scene in the 1984 film too, but this movie won’t hurt you like that.)
Dakota Beavers as Taabe and Amber Midthunder as Naru in “Prey” (20th Century Studios)Coco’s comic timing as she spits out a rodent she chased down feels effortless. Not only does she provide company for Naru, holding her own alongside the accomplished actor, she’s company for the audience, the comic for Naru’s straight man, the Hooch for her Turner. And the dog’s occasional haplessness is a nice realistic change from her fearlessness. Sarii goes after a bear, after all.
Wisely, even if perhaps accidentally, the film doesn’t let us fret about the dog for too long, nor let us forget her. Soon she comes barking back into the scene. If Naru is not worried, we’re not worried.
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The four-legged “Prey” character was inspired by the blue-heeler known as Dog in “Mad Max: The Road Warrior,” and Sarii is poised to take her place among the Benjis, Lassies, Rin Tin Tins and Rovers of the screen. By including her in most of the film, the dog feels present in most of Naru’s life and the life of her tribe. And when Sarii is taken, Naru will risk her life for the animal, as Sarii risks life for Naru again and again. That’s just what partners do. It’s not presented in the film as a big deal. It’s just expected.
No dog left behind. And if Sarii has a say in it, no warrior, either.