directed by Lawrence Guterman with Jeff Goldblum, Elizabeth Perkins, Tobey Maguire, Sean Hayes, and Alec Baldwin opens July 4 at Meridian, Metro, and others
DUAL DEMOGRAPHICS make for funny movies (meaning both funny ha-ha and funny strange). Think back to the Toy Story series—wonderful comedies that appeal to children and parents alike. This summer, Shrek also provides good fun for both generations as well. Then you've got Cats & Dogs, a gentle, occasionally amusing kid flick that manages to seem less imaginative than the Meow Mix and Taco Bell commercials that made stars of talking pets (and which surely inspired this film). Melding real animals and actors with animatronic puppets and computer-generated imagery (principally to match feline and canine lips to human speech), the movie produces some cute effects in the service of a plot that'll mostly fly over the heads of younger viewers.
After the massive success of Spy Kids, Cats & Dogs' intrigue and gadgetry can't help but seem belated, although its principal frame of reference is James Bond. Here, our hapless would-be 007 is Lou, an eager, adorable beagle voiced by The Cider House Rules' Tobey Maguire (sounding alarmingly like Michael J. Fox). He's mentored in canine intelligence ops by gruff-but-lovable Butch (Alec Baldwin, suggesting his Hunt for Red October turn as Jack Ryan), who uses his paws to manipulate a high-tech battery of computers hidden beneath his innocuous doghouse. Who knew there was such Tom Clancy stuff going on in the backyard? Certainly not the Brody family, which includes a benign mad scientist (Jeff Goldblum), wife (Elizabeth Perkins), and their ever-so-slightly-neglected son.
The kid, Scott, naturally bonds with Lou, who finds himself defending Goldblum's allergist/inventor against "the great cat menace." That's the comic premise of Cats & Dogs—that the two species are involved in an all-out war affecting "the future of man and dog alike." There's no question where our allegiance should lie, of course. "The cat invasion" is led by Mr. Tinkles, a peevish white Persian right off Blofeld's lap in Thunderball. (Such associations with SPECTRE and plans for world domination are funny enough for us, but lost on youngsters.)
THE MOVIE'S ON firmer ground when forgoing parody for slapstick. A preview audience full of kids responded strongly to an initial cat-dog chase recalling Warner Brothers Road Runner 'toons. Let's face it—a dog being lured by a nefarious cat to leap into a sliding glass door, then sliding down the pane with his CGI-distorted face, is funny stuff. What's striking, however, is how quickly Cats & Dogs loses its preteen viewers when the action lags. Parents laugh far more frequently than kids because they get all the references. Mr. Tinkles resides with a comatose tycoon in a mansion out of Citizen Kane, but what child knows or cares about that?
Likewise, Cats & Dogs scores the most yuks—among grown-ups, at least—with power-mad Mr. Tinkles, the only memorable character in the picture. Voiced by Sean Hayes (Jack on TV's Will and Grace), this egomaniacal, long-haired fascist rants and raves before receiving his inevitable comeuppance, but the humor's chiefly verbal. (Mr. Tinkles making like a ventriloquist for his coma-case master is particularly funny.)
The CGI stuff briefly enlivens the movie with some action set pieces (ninja cats, etc.), but the hair textures and unnatural movements of cats and dogs alike can be downright creepy. (The puppets are even worse.) Lou and one feline assassin engage in a battle that nearly destroys his owners' house, and that gleeful, transgressive thrill will appeal to kids more than the inescapable hugs and family reconciliations that must conclude Cats & Dogs. The primal childhood urge to chase and smash things is here treated as a big no-no instead of a cinematic thrill: It's OK to explode a factory to thwart the schemes of a feline tyrant, but don't pee on the carpet. Mr. Bigglesworth would not be amused.