Movie Review: Cats & Dogs
There are dog people, and there are cat people.
The filmmakers behind "Cats & Dogs" obviously are dog people.
This reviewer is a cat person.
Such admitted bias may not seem a valid basis for erudite film criticism, but this movie's tag line is "Who will you root for?" so the implication is that there's a reasonable choice. Gee, should you favor the cute little puppies and noble bigger dogs who fight for the forces of good, or a bunch of nasty, grotesque animatronic cats bent on world domination?
Given cats' natural advantages in the brains and cuteness departments, you can see why dog-centric filmmakers in this case, director Lawrence Guterman and writers John Requa and Glenn Ficarra might want to throw the pooches a bone or two. But the unfairness here is cat-astrophic.
Making cats look ugly on film takes some effort, and these are the most hideous felines I've ever seen. The cats' nefarious leader the white, fluffy, pejoratively named Mr. Tinkles (voiced by Sean Hayes) has enormous eyes, a scrunched-up face and a perpetually sour expression. Most of his fellow cats share these qualities, looking like they just scampered out of Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" video.
Why make the cats evil? Wouldn't the traditional inter-species animosity provide enough fuel for a cats-dogs war? The cats could tease the dogs for their reliance on humans to take them to the "bathroom," while the dogs could act on their envy over cats' amazing self-cleaning abilities. Here, the only animal described as stinky is a cat. Figures.
These cats aim to take over the world through rather convoluted means. In a history lesson that's actually one of the film's comic highlights, the beagle pup Lou (voiced by Tobey Maguire) learns that felines actually ruled humans in ancient Egypt before dogs came to the rescue, thus earning the title of "man's best friend."
Now the klutzy Professor Brody (Jeff Goldblum) is busily toiling in his suburban basement laboratory, seeking a cure for people's allergies to dogs. The scheming kitties figure that if they can steal the professor's secret formula, reverse it and make all people allergic to dogs, the canines will be shoved aside, and the cats will rise to power once more. The dogs' mission is to thwart this plan, though due to a mix-up they must rely on the inexperienced "agent" Lou to be their eyes and floppy ears inside the Brody house.
The idea of cats and dogs engaging in "Mission: Impossible"-style espionage is funny up to a point. The animals, who keep their battles and speaking ability secret from humans, boast a spy school's worth of computers, surveillance equipment and other high-tech doodads. The dogs have their own gadget-testing factory, like Q's in the James Bond movies. The cats' secret weapons include kung-fu kitties (yes, expect the now-obligatory "Matrix" sight gag) and fur balls to be coughed up and detonated.
Guterman stages the action in the frenetic, slapstick style of Warner Bros. cartoons. Some stunts and jokes are genuinely clever. Others make you ponder why seeing a real-life dog (or an electronic puppet version of one) smash his head into a glass door doesn't provide the same guiltless kicks as similar mishaps endured by cartoon characters.
You also sense that some of the fast cutting is intended to give the animals' performances some margin for error. The funniest, most awesome animal movie stunt I've seen is the sequence in "Babe" in which the pig and duck try to sneak past a cat and up a staircase to steal an alarm clock. The scene is shot as if humans were on screen, with the camera staying on Babe and Ferdinand so you see them actually carrying out every excruciating step of the intended theft. The immediacy draws you in as the tension builds to a hilarious payoff.
Perhaps because the filmmaking in "Cats & Dogs" is choppier, perhaps because its characters are less distinctive, I was much more conscious of the effort that went into the animal manipulation here. The same goes for the computer-graphics work that makes the mouths move. In "Babe," I never doubted that the animals were talking. Here, six years of presumed technological advances later, I kept being reminded of annoying pet-food commercials. Swarms of computer-generated mice further undercut the feeling of watching flesh-and-blood creatures.
As for the humans, they're innocuous. Alexander Pollock's Scott is your basic well-scrubbed boy who learns to befriend his puppy pal. Elizabeth Perkins is the amiable, beleaguered mom who at one point is called upon to scream longer than necessary. Goldblum could do his absent-minded professor act in his sleep.
Viewers may find the movie relatively harmless as well, at least if they don't mind some especially aggressive product placement, the requisite flatulent dog and the defamation of an entire category of household pet.
If you can't get worked up about the cat-bashing, consider this: Of all of the cat and dog characters, just one is a female, a Saluki hound named Ivy (voiced by Susan Sarandon). She never even gets to participate in the intrigue, instead remaining on the sidelines to play mother to Lou.
Such animal sexism not only is objectionable, it's also wrongheaded. Female cats and dogs are every bit as cunning and ferocious as their male counterparts, as my boy cat, who's routinely whaled upon by my girl cat half his size, would attest.
Still, kids may find the animal action irresistible. Who knows? Maybe I'm just being a sourpuss.
"Cats & Dogs"
Directed by Lawrence Guterman; written by John Requa & Glenn Ficarra; photographed by Julio Macat; edited by Michael Stevenson, Rick W. Finney; production designed by James Bissell; music by John Debney; produced by Andrew Lazar, Chris deFaria, Warren Zide, Craig Perry. A Warner Bros. Pictures release; opened Wednesday, July 4. Running time: 1:27. MPAA rating: PG-13 (animal action and humor).
Professor Brody Jeff Goldblum
Carolyn Brody Elizabeth Perkins
Scott Brody Alexander Pollock
Lou Tobey Maguire
Butch Alec Baldwin
Mr. Tinkles Sean Hayes
Ivy Susan Sarandon