Producers: Tucker Tooley, Mark Canton, Courtney Solomon, Tessa Tooley, Mark Wahlberg and Stephen Levinson   Director: Simon Cellan Jones   Screenplay: Michael Brandt   Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Simu Liu, Juliet Rylance, Nathalie Emmanuel, Ali Suliman, Viktor Åkerblom, Cece Valentina, Paul Guilfoyle and Ukai     Distributor: Lionsgate

Grade: C

An over-calculated combination of endurance adventure and doggie tearjerker designed to melt the hardest of hearts, “Arthur the King” is based on a true story, though screenwriter Michael Brandt has Americanized it. 

In 2014 Mikael Lindnord led a four-member Swedish team on a harrowing four-hundred mile “adventure race”—involving joint running, cycling, rock-climbing and kayaking—through the Ecuadoran wilderness.  Along the way they encountered a scruffy street dog they dubbed Arthur. After being fed by Mikael, it followed them doggedly, if you’ll pardon the expression, and when it got into trouble they chose rescuing it over winning the race.  Mikael decided to adopt the animal and take it home with him, but Arthur required medical treatment for a serious infection, and for a while the outcome was touch-and-go.

Though based on the 2016 memoir “Arthur: The Dog Who Crossed the Jungle to Find a Home” by   Lindnord and Val Hudson, this version transforms Mikael into Michael Light (Mark Wahlberg), a semi-retired long-time racer living in a lovely Colorado mountain estate with his wife Helena (Juliet Rylance) and cute-as-a-button little daughter Ruby (Cece Valentina). He’s always come up short in competition, often because he fails to take advice from the other team members, and feels suffocated at the thought of joining the real estate business of his father Charlie (Paul Guilfoyle), where he’s stuck showing houses while wearing a pink T-shirt emblazoned with the Light company logo.

Determined to compete again in the 2018 world championship in the Dominican Republic, he’s told by a potential sponsor (Viktor Åkerblom) that his backing is dependent on attracting Liam (Simu Liu), whom he’d fought with over strategy in their last race but who’s since become an Instagram celebrity, to join Michael’s squad.  Liam finally agrees, but it’s eventually revealed that Michael still had to put up part of the cost himself.  The two other members of the team are Chik (Ali Suliman), an old friend with a bad knee who’s become a tour guide since the prior outing, and Olivia (Nathalie Emmanuel), a superb young athlete, specializing in rock-climbing, who accepts Michael’s invitation at the insistence of her father who, she reveals, he has terminal cancer.

The movie proceeds to the Dominican Republic, and follows the team through the first portion of the race, most notably a wild episode in which they use what appears to be a discarded old cable-car wire to zip over a huge gorge carrying their bicycles (naturally one of them gets stuck midway and must be rescued by another).  Inevitably there are other delays—one member gets dehydrated and ill, Chik’s bad knee acts up, another’s heel is scarred and enflamed. 

But what’s eventually the most important part of the trek is the appearance of the as-yet unnamed dog, which has previously been shown in inserts roaming the streets and being chased by other, nasty canines.  Michael gives the mutt a couple of the meatballs he’s heated up for himself at a rest stop, and the dog follows the group from that point on, saving Liam from falling off a cliff in the jungle as they rush on at night trying to close the gap between them and the contest leaders. 

Naming the dog Arthur for his royal mien despite his scraggly appearance, they understandably adopt him until they reach the last stage of the run—kayaking. He jumps into the water and they’re faced with the choice of abandoning the drowning animal or saving him at the cost of a victory.  The choice they make becomes a sensation online as publicity-conscious Liam posts the photos he’s been taking along the way, and when the team crosses the finish line, it’s as triumphant losers.  Michael’s decision to take Arthur for medical treatment in the States despite the odds against his survival is the culmination of the story’s emotional manipulation. 

It’s hard to determine the degree of embellishment involved here; it’s probably considerable, though the expedition photos show that much of what’s portrayed actually happened, at least to some extent.  But the script certainly omits the fact that an Ecuadoran man later claimed that the dog was his and had been kidnapped—a claim later withdrawn.  In any evet, it certainly appears that Arthur has since led a happy life with the Lindnords. 

Nonetheless, however exciting one finds the adventure racing and however endearing the man-dog bonding, the movie has serious problems.  The first half is hobbled by an excess of macho posturing, pedestrian dialogue (with Wahlberg repeatedly justifying himself by saying “a racer races”), overemphatic music (by Kevin Matley) and stolid acting. And though Ukai makes a lovably mangy Arthur, the doggie character is inconsistent from moment to moment.  In one scene he’ll be hobbling around with a lame leg, and in the next traveling easily on all four; he’ll be terrified of confinement, but then saunter quietly into a cage for the plane ride to Colorado.  

Moreover, while some of the action scenes are, thanks to the cinematography of Jacques Jouffret, extraordinary (the early rock-climbing with Wahlberg and Emmanuel, the rescue scene over the gorge), too often they’re messily staged by director Simon Cellan Jones and chaotically edited by Gary D. Roach.  In addition, the device meant to keep us informed of the team’s progress—of having homebound Helena follow their movements via GPS data on a computer screen—is both clumsy and a sad misuse of Rylance.

In the second half of the film, Wahlberg goes soft as Light drops everything else to save Arthur, and many viewers will succumb to the sniffles as Ukai does an act that rivals Camille, repeatedly at death’s door but rallying at the last moment.  Dog fanciers will be pleased to know that they needn’t fear going through the trauma of an “Old Yeller” or a “Marley & Me.” They will, however, have to endure an adventure that’s only intermittently exciting and a canine weepie that’s positively cloying.