Which is not to say that watching specially trained and animatronic animals drive limos and cough up hairballs containing secret weapons is supposed to be an exercise in spirituality or philosophy. Of course movies like these are for the most part silly diversions that provide a haven from the summer heat. But if visual tricks and gags are all that a "kiddie flick" is supposed to deliver, wouldn't we all be safer (and wealthier) just sitting home and channel-surfing?
In this domesticated battle for control of petdom, first-time director Larry Guterman shows almost no sophistication in story-telling or theme. Basically, what you see is what you get. In Guterman's world, what we thought was a tenuous co-existence between cats and dog is really an all-out war that dates back to ancient Egypt, with dogs the good guys and cats the evil schemers. Both are trying to disrupt the even balance of power; the only difference is, Guterman suggests, that the world is in better hands with the canines.
By taking sides in this film, Guterman misses a golden opportunity to talk a little about co-existence between seemingly disparate tribes. (Plus, it's stupid marketing, but that's Warner Brothers' problem.) That's not such a criminal act in itself, except for the fact that it's one in a series of obvious interpretations and stereotypes of his characters.
A beagle's drop-dead cute and impossible not to love. An Asian cat knows martial arts, a Russian cat a bully. A female dog is a seductress. Dogs are loyal. Cats are insidious.
Even the family that provides the battlefield of this war is drawn with a crayon, and it's hard to tell if it's for caricature or is just a cliché. Mrs. Brody (Elizabeth Perkins, whose career has been on a milk carton for years) is a soccer mom, for chrissakes. Young son Scott Brody (Alexander Pollock) is misunderstood. Mr. Brody is an absent-minded professor, played by the king of absent-minded actors, Jeff Goldblum. It is Mr. Brody who is working on an antidote that will provide a cure for dog allergies, thus tipping the scales of power toward the mutts.
The leader of the evil cats, Mr. Tinkles (Will and Grace's Sean Hayes, whose voice pretty much steals the show), vows to steal the formula and turn it upside down so that humans will become allergic to dogs. And then the cats can really start wreaking havoc. He's worked it so that the Brody's family dog, actually a secret agent on assignment to protect the lab, is kidnapped. So the dog world, led by The Mastiff (Charlton Heston topping his Bud Light voice-overs), sends in reinforcements. But instead of another agent, the family gets a likeable beagle pup they name Lou (Tobey Maguire), much to the dismay of security chief Butch, who's a little focused on his mission and not about greater issues of love and loyalty. (Butch, as Susan Sarandon's Ivy points out, has "issues.")
But Butch is stuck with the eager Lou and a team of other dogs who must guard Mr. Brody's lab and the endless attempts to steal the formula (hence the karate-kicking felines and the Russian brute). Which also means plenty of action, but more curiously, a world where cats and dogs have concocted just as sophisticated a world of computers and weapons as their human counterparts. Forgive the arrogance, but how the hell did they do that? And where's the fun in that? In previous animal action films, the impressive thing about the non-humans is their ability to make do with that they have in a human world. Without providing any context for being able to conjure up a laptop, first-time screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa must have just up and said one night, "Hey, let's give 'em computers and stuff. That'd be cool!"
All this may sound like a lot of huffing and puffing over something that's meant to be fun, and it's not like Cats and Dogs doesn't have its fun moments. The special effects, courtesy CGI, and the animatronic creatures created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop are more than believable. And it's hard not to laugh at watching dogs and cats wage the battle we've been suspecting they've been having. Mr. Tinkles, especially, is hilarious as he endures the incompetence of his underlings. (The best line in the movie is wasted in the trailer as he stuffs his lame-brained lieutenant in a room. "Wait here," he says. "Why?" "Because I hate you.")
But unlike its most obvious film by comparison, Babe, which lightly sketched a thoughtful tale of a pig trying to find his place in the world, Cats and Dogs is little more than technofied slapstick. Too bad we're not given much reason to care. -->
- A dog and his gun: Lou the beagle kicks ass and takes whiskers in the hyped-up animal movie, Cats and Dogs.