by Joe Hammerschmidt
A line exists during the first act of Raja Gosnell’s Show Dogs, where a talking dog whose facial expressions are made real through rather cheap CGI, utters the blind opinion where “nobody makes talking dog movies anymore.” It certainly has been a while, one would almost say the sub-sub-subgenre had gone deservedly dormant, and/or relegated to simple direct-to-video releases that would just go unnoticed. Cinematic works involving cute animals are a dime a dozen, and this summer promises to offer a certain slew. It is just rather disappointing to see the first of these prove to only serve the purpose of entertaining grade schoolers, but I’m sure you guys knew that. It’s a handholders’ movie, meaning anyone over age 10 would have no interest, to the relief of parents. So if you do embark on this journey, it is important, very important to set the expectations to a very low minimum.
Gosnell, who started out his career as an easygoing editor until the mid-90s, transitioned immediately into directing at the turn of the millennium reaching household name status with 2002’s Scooby-Doo. Since then, his niche was instantly solidified, making no attempts to branch out or attempt anything different. He is clearly in his comfort zone, directing another simple kid-friendly caper, only with a much smaller budget than what he would’ve been accustomed to. Speaking long-run, that probably would’ve hurt his vision a trifle, but the target audience won’t notice.
At least the premise is clever enough: NYPD street dog Max (voiced by Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) is teamed up with hesitant, possibly canine-despising FBI agent Frank (a slightly bored Will Arnett) to uncover an exotic animal smuggling ring, who plan on congregating at a prestigious dog show in Las Vegas. Make matters a little more personal, Max takes a certain shine to a singular panda, one of the kidnapped animals to challenge realism. To complete the sting op, both man and canine must compete in the show, and win, which in theory would lead to access into the private meeting rooms and such. Surprisingly enough, this plot could have better suited a more mature film ala Ted, and Gosnell would have discovered a brighter challenge in not weighing down the work to appeal to all audiences. Its overall purpose just lacks any drive or momentum as a result of the requirement to water down its potential to the lowest common level.
The film’s script almost represents two separate attempts at shining a lump of coal into a diamond. Max Botkin (What Happened to Monday) appears to best represent the off-wall grit of a mismatched buddy comedy, while Marc Hyman (perhaps best known for Osmosis Jones and its spinoff TV series) sets aside the less-than-adequate humor which more or less stops the film cold in its paw tracks, try as it will not to. The merger of both sensitivities just doesn’t work, and it does leave a small effect on some members of its cast. One can’t simply overlook the merits of talented performers, a rather spotless cast list, simply phoning it in; a familiarity one hasn’t properly noticed in too long, but is no less an unwelcome next door neighbor, even with some welcome inclusions. There’s Natasha Lyonne as the reluctant field agent who poses more the dog lover than Frank, who unwittingly learns a few lessons in compassion along the way. Her dog, Daisy (an otherwise unnoticeable Jordan Sparks), is on all points committed to the prestige of the show, which Max scoffs. Their collective chemistry, is less convincing; love interests, not so much. Adequate coworkers, perhaps more accurate. A buddhist Shaq, RuPaul as a presumably non-gender-normative ally, and Stanley Tucci as a confident French poodle with a dark past are among the few standouts, yet cannot look past the genericism, as much as the parents likely cannot either.
The largest disappointment may run with Arnett, who has been known to take on plenty of unique roles for his kids. Yet when your previous worst turns out to be better than your worst, one just has to question the reasons why. He’s such a good sport, however, taking on each level of ridicule, even if the film’s most annoying trait rests on his shoulders, that he can barely understand the animal’s respective dialects. A late-game Dirty Dancing ripoff dream sequence occurring around the most indignant of dog show requirements (don’t ask what) is one among many eye-rolling moments that clearly do not belong in this film without a better buildup.
Much as we could easily question this film’s every move, the idea of why, why this film was even made, or at least not buried into the DTV cemetery? The plot-line leaves little to the imagination, casting just desperate for vindication, and CGI unfitting to actual canine performers giving their all when voice actors and human performers fall significantly short. It has been almost forever since a film of this kind had me nearly whispering in the audience “please just end.”; my inner MSTie had started to set in, it was growing worse by the minute. An audience cheering for this trite clearly haven’t discovered the finer joys of cinema. Yet we do need films like Show Dogs to formally desensitize youngsters to a certain quality of cheese, appreciate their novelty value, and formally poke some fun. If I was to return to this feature anytime soon, it would only be wayward comments in hand and the hope Mr. Arnett’s career can be steered back in the right direction between more BoJack and Arrested Development. (D)
Show Dogs is in most area theaters today; rated PG for suggestive and rude humor, language, and some action; 92 minutes.