Turner & Hooch: the quiet reason the film matters

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One writer on how Turner & Hooch proved to be a transformative trip to the movies.

Spoilers lie ahead for Turner & Hooch.

I can remember my first trip to a cinema with a surprising amount of clarity; despite the ageing process doing its best in recent years to haze over some of the finer details. I was roughly six years of age, tucking into a bowl of my favourite Tiger-fuelled cereal when my father sat next to me at the breakfast table and pointed at a small box, located in the corner of the newspaper.

Within this box were small pictures, each one accompanied with a variety of times.

“So, which would you like to go and see at the cinema?” he asked.

It would be a lie to pretend I can remember the exact conversation that followed, but I certainly recall being given a choice between either Disney’s Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs or The Jungle Book. Both films were reissues, back at a time when the House of Mouse would regularly churn their releases through the multiplexes, hoping to recruit new followers and potential future cartoon addicts. 

‘What’s the cinema?’ I asked.

‘It’s like television – only better,’ I was told.

Later that day I found myself stood in the lobby of the nearest UCI, on the verge of attending my very first screening. Surrounding me were sights and sensations I had never experienced before; my eyes burning at the sight of garish neon trim lights running the length of the building’s walls and my nostrils filling with the overwhelming aroma of sweet popcorn, threatening to send me into a sugar rush at any moment.

But it was the item grasped tightly in my hand that was most important; a strip of paper, printed upon which were the words, Snow White. By the time we had taken our seat, my head barely able to peek over the plush red chairs in front of me, I still had no idea what to expect.

What followed next, shaped a love of movies that has lasted to this day. A carnival of images, dancing on the largest ‘television’ screen I had ever witnessed. One scene in particular had me in stitches, watching as ‘the funny one’, aptly named Dopey, struggled to navigate a small cupboard. The premise of the joke was so simple and yet I had never seen anything like it before. I laughed endlessly and without realising it I was hooked on cinema. On the journey home, all I can remember thinking was: when would I get to go again?

Unfortunately, trips to the cinema were less frequent than I would have liked, especially in those early years. Looking back, the reason was most likely a result of my parents struggling marriage and the arguments that sucked up their time and energy. A handful of VHS tapes sufficed during these periods, however, when I did get to go, sitting in that screen, with the lights down low and the projector whirring, I no longer felt suffocated by the heavy atmosphere that often filled my home. I was free and valued it more than anything.

Therefore, when one particular visit to see a screening of Honey I Shrunk The Kids ended in a hard introduction to the term ‘sold out’ I felt crushed. My father must have sensed my disappointment, and quickly scanned the listings to see what else we might be able to watch. I waited patiently as my heart began to sink further and further.

“Let’s watch this one,’”he proclaimed. “It’s about a dog like Holly – you’ll love it.”

I should probably mention at this point that perhaps a year prior, we had welcomed my first dog into the family – a springy legged, stumpy tailed Boxer named Holly. I loved Holly; even more than going to the cinema.

Looking upon the poster for Turner & Hooch, I could certainly see the similarities, with the dog’s sagging jowls and rolls of fur waiting to be ruffled, but I was still wary. I can’t be sure if this was the first live-action film I saw at the cinema, but I’m struggling to recall any other. Wiping away the tears I’d shed over not getting to see my first pick, we eventually took our seat and the film started.

At first, I was unsure. There were no cartoon animals to focus my attention on, and the characters talked a lot about things I didn’t understand. However 20 minutes in, the aforementioned Hooch finally made his grand entrance: crashing through a glass window and sprinting like an unmanned train towards the main character. It was love at first sight. Every scene with the dog that followed was better than the last in my eyes. I had no care for the plot details, failing to understand how the dog had ended up in Tom Hank’s care in the first place.

All I cared about was how much of Holly I saw in Hooch. The way slobber would drip from his mouth like shoelaces was identical, along with the small grunts and growls that accompanied each comedic sigh. ‘I never want this to end,’I must have thought, caught up Hooch’s hijinks.

And then that ending came.

Watching as Hooch courageously leapt towards the armed villain, committing to one final act of loyalty towards his master, my heart erupted from my ribcage as the gun-shot rang out.

This was my first encounter with death – and it broke me. I cried and sobbed from that point onwards, and not even the upbeat sight of a cute puppy over the closing credits could snap me out of it. My father tried to convince me that it wasn’t real as we drove home – that the dog hadn’t actually died.

But I couldn’t comprehend it.

Animations weren’t real and easy to distinguish from reality, but this was too real and no amount of words of comfort could convince me otherwise. What followed was a full cycle of grief; sadness, anger and pain all coming one after the other. I’d never felt it before and I lived in fear of the same thing happening to my beloved Holly for weeks to come. Hooch was gone and with no return trips to the cinema, and no way of watching it again at home, the pain of not seeing him again hurt like nothing I’d ever felt at the time.

Of course, the film’s later home release set the record straight for me, and as much as I grew to the love the film, understanding the plot more and more, I still lived in dread of that final act. Even now, some 20-plus years later, it triggers a pain in me that’s hard to explain. But like all films we love endlessly, I can’t resist its charms. Its plot may be ‘by the numbers’, but that’s not to damn it with faint praise because it hits all the emotional beats with a deftness that raises the film far above what its sub-genre label would perhaps suggest.

If cinema is ‘a machine for empathy’, then Turner & Hooch unlocked a level of compassion in me that I wasn’t even aware existed. It was a defining lesson in the accompanying pain that comes with loss, thrust upon me at a point where I didn’t even believe it possible that a film could cause me so much hurt, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

Instead, if I could go back in time I’d put an arm around my young self and tell him that grief is never easy, whether real or etched into the frames of our favourite films – it’s just an unfortunate way of life. But we can deal with it, carrying the residual memories of those we loved for as long as we need too, and just as easy as putting in a DVD and hitting play, we can revisit them at any time.

This is why cinema is so important to me. Films can make us laugh until we fold ourselves over, cry until our eyes burn or screw our faces up in anger, but we are always learning how to be better people, whether we are ready for the lesson or not.

See also: the making of Turner & Hooch explored in our podcast.

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