A.X.L., a wholesome boy-and-his-dog adventure and an inoffensive PG trifle, is patterned after The Iron Giant — a good role model for any movie to emulate, though obviously a hard one to measure up to. It also has shades of Short Circuit, E.T., and the like, being the story of an underdog teenage motocrosser named Miles (Alex Neustaedter) who finds and befriends a robotic war-dog that escaped from the military contractors who built it.
Named A.X.L. (Attack Exploration Logistics), the Great Dane-sized cyber-beast has the loyalty and playfulness of a real dog mixed with the lethal capabilities of a tank, with some Transformer qualities thrown in for good measure. (We won’t see the Transformers prequel Bumblebee till Christmas, but I feel like A.X.L. is basically it.) It has fully articulated ears, makes growling sounds, even “sniffs” people, all while using its internal hardware to scan nearby electronic devices, hack phones, and so forth. As pets go, it’s the whole package.
A.X.L. imprints on Miles and his quasi-girlfriend, Sara (Becky G), thereafter protecting them from Sam (Alex MacNicoll), the rich brat who is Miles’ racing and romantic rival. Back at the high-tech lab where A.X.L. was created, its inventor (Dominic Rains) argues with an underling (Lou Taylor Pucci) about whether to retrieve it or wait and see how it does in its first interactions with humans (there’s a chance it will just kill them). Miles’ supportive father (Thomas Jane) is mostly kept out of the loop, involved only enough to justify hiring a “name” actor to play him. (Sam’s jerk dad is played by Ted McGinley.)
New writer-director Oliver Daly, expanding on his 2015 short, keeps things simple, targeting young viewers — and, to a lesser extent, dog lovers — who want a low-impact fantasy. It doesn’t withstand scientific scrutiny, and the dialogue is purely functional, but the movie meets the basic narrative requirements.