Movie Review: The Champions (2015)

The Champions 3

Rating: B+/ Although it is understandable to be wary of a documentary focusing on the ‘unrehabilitatable’ fighting dogs seized from disgraced NFL-er Michael Vick’s compound, The Champions isn’t the gory affair you might expect. Concentrating on the long, arduous road to rehabilitation and the people who have dedicated their lives to helping dogs that are dismissed as hopeless cases, the film is a heartwarming if biased affair, with enough brutal honesty to keep it from becoming too saccharine.

  The Champions focuses primarily on four pit bulls- Big Red, Johnny, Handsome Dan, and Cherry, who were used and abused by Michael Vick, forced among a multitude of other dogs to fight to the death for Vick and others’ entertainment. For those who don’t know (and those who have been living under a rock for the last few years) Michael Vick was a pro football player who was convicted of running an illegal dog-fighting ring on his property. Vick had dozens of dogs living in deplorable conditions who he fought, and he drowned, hanged, and electrocuted those who lost.

Fun fact about Michael Vick; did you know he killed his own kids’ dogs by taking them down to the fighting pit and smashing their skulls repeatedly against the ground? Neither did I. Huh. Kind of makes you feel all warm and fuzzy about humanity, doesn’t it? Luckily, the doc in question doesn’t focus on Michael Vick and the abuses his dogs suffered (such a film would be unwatchable,) but on the amazing people who took on responsibility for these traumatized animals, who in many cases were scarred in both body and soul.

I don’t generally watch documentaries, but this movie made me think Is should give more of these types of films a chance. We already know that Michael Vick is a turd, and it’s going to take a lot more in the eyes of those who care about the welfare of animals than saying “I’ve paid my debt to society” to make us forget the things he’s done to undeserving dogs. I disagree with the radio DJ they interviewed that this whole thing needs to be reopened again and again like a fresh wound (there are other stories out there to tell,) but I still wouldn’t trust Vick any farther than I could throw him (which isn’t very far when you take into account his considerable muscle mass and sheer size.)

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For the most part, The Champions provides a very positive, but generally realistic,  perspective on the tricky task of rehabilitating dogs who have known nothing but violence their entire lives. I questioned the decision of taking a dog that still suffered from major anxiety and placing it (prematurely, it seemed to me) with a family, sometimes with kids. I’m all for giving these beautiful dogs a second chance, but the apparent rush to couple a dog with a prospective owner seemed like a disaster waiting to happen, as far as I’m concerned.

For the most part, the couple who rehabilitated the dogs seemed like really nice, but there were definitely moments in the film that made me nervous. And, it might seem unreasonable on my part, but it makes me anxious to see dogs that were trained to kill with very young children, though I was glad to hear the the couple with the little boy didn’t leave the kid and the dog alone together (FYI, leaving a young child and any breed of dog in the room together without supervision is like playing with a loaded gun, don’t blame the breed when your kid doesn’t have a face.)

As a dog lover, this was a very compelling experience, though the first five minutes or so are a heart tugger for sure. I ended up with enormous respect for the people who were able to look past the dogs’ formidable appearance and menacing reputation, and where they came from, to find the fun-loving sweetie hidden beneath the scars. Johnny seemed like the most well-adjusted dog and I certainly have no worries about him; time will tell how the other dogs will fare in their new homes.

It was a rocky journey for the people who rehabilitated and adopted them, but it seems like it was (and still is) a wonderful and fulfilling one. A big thumbs up for people who choose to spend their life making wonderful things happen for dogs, and I hope similar action will be taken with future dogs recovered from fighting rings. If this movie has taught me anything it’s that the majority these creatures can recover from the abuse they’ve suffered, and I hope this movie will help destigmatize American Pit Bulls and get people interested in adopting one of these beautiful and unique dogs.

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