All Bark

Cats & Dogs doesn't quite build a better mousetrap

Now that A.I.'s out of the way and it's safe again to read movie reviews without dictionary and NoDoz in hand, onward and downward to the Summer of Dumb. Who has time for serious and thoughtful when there's plenty of stupid to slather all over audiences that like to stay blank and pasty when things get a little sticky outside? Not that one can confuse Cats & Dogswith, oh, Pootie Tang, Tomb Raider or The Fast and the Furious, but still, it's only "good" because everything else this summer, with rare exception, has been so awful. The minute Tomb Raiderpocketed more than 39 bucks, which is what it looks like it cost to make, you knew moviegoers had become willing to sit through anythingas long as it has sound and color. Here was a movie so bad Paramount made critics sign waivers not to write about it till the last possible minute, and stillit's doing blockbuster biz. You're better off lighting your firecrackers' fuses with a 10 spot than wasting it on yet another summer movie guaranteed to shut down your nervous system within the first seven minutes.

Cats & Dogs, like Shrek earlier this spring, is one of those movies that will surely pull in large green because it's one of the few kids' movies of this bummer summer, and it looks mighty watchable when compared to the dreck playing in the next theater. It's not horrible, nor is it terribly charming, despite its premise-cum-promise of cats and dogs leading double lives as talking-thinking-scheming secret agents fighting their age-old battle for domestic supremacy with computers, walkie-talkie collars and other Get Smartgadgets. It's just so willfully mediocre, product dolled up as entertainment--a Petsmart commercial, in other words, unfurled like a 3-and-up video game. You'd have thought the notion of talking animals on screen would have lost its wowfactor around the time Babe got lost in the city--or, come to think of it, around the time Mr. Ed got lost in Mr. Elmer's glue factory--but apparently not. Get a cute-and-cuddly to move its lips and sound like Alec Baldwin or Tobey Maguire or Will & Grace's Sean Hayes, and wow, that sure am funny, Maw.

The story's as thin and predictable as Jeff Goldblum, who tics his way through Cats & Dogsas Professor Brody, a scientist on the verge of eliminating humankind's allergies to dogs. Brody spends his days and nights locked in his lab, shutting out his wife (Elizabeth Perkins) and son, Scott (Alexander Pollock); he'd rather sniff dog dander than kick the soccer ball to his boy. Brody's work is damaging his family life and threatening to destroy the domestic-animal kingdom: If humans are no longer allergic to dogs, then cats might well become a moot point. A handful of canine agents--and an accidental watchpuppy, a tiny beagle named Lou, voiced by Spider-ManMaguire--has been secured to protect the Brody household: Butch (Baldwin), a bitter Anatolian shepherd with no great love for humans; Peek (Joe Pantoliano), a Chinese hairless with mad electronics skills; and Sam (Michael Clarke Duncan), a sheepdog with a gas problem. It's their job to stave off "the great cat menace"--bad pussy, in other words.

One Persian has a nefarious plan up his paw: Mr. Tinkles (voiced by Hayes) schemes to steal Brody's serum, reverse its effects and thus leave kitties as the only house pet of choice. Tinkles is a fur ball of hate, Blofeld's kitty run amok without his master. (The whole movie is a James Bond parody played out on four furry legs.) He has at his disposal a league of assassins--ninja kitties who parachute into the Brody home and a Russian Blue assassin armed with boomerang blades and plastic explosives--and a doltish sidekick, Calico (Jon Lovitz), who becomes a sacrificial cat in the war on dogs. Tinkles is even portrayed late in the film as a feline Hitler bent on world domination as he leads a rally that looks like something lifted from Triumph of the Will; in such a dippy, empty movie, that one charged scene is particularly disquieting, the laugh that hangs up in your throat.

At its best, Cats & Dogs plays like a live-action Tex Avery cartoon, down to the exploding ACME dog bone; it's slapstick and slapdash, full of silly and violent nonsense worth a chuckle or two as dogs slam into glass doors and cats play dead on suburban streets. But once you've seen the gimmick and gadgets, the movie begins to feel like it's stuck in a loop; it hasn't enough wits or smarts to wring more than a few decent jokes and observations out of its one-note setup. Susan Sarandon, as a graceful Saluki hound, is a stray who prefers to be referred to as "domestically challenged," while Baldwin, still pumped up from his stint as Pearl Harbor's James Doolittle, gets in the best line when he growls, "Son of my mother."

Too bad the movie doesn't begin where it almost ends: at the center of the universe, where the World Dog Council (run by the top dog, voiced by Charlton Heston, of course) meets and where Frisbees and accusations fly. It's surreal spectacle at the end of so much mundane and obvious tomfoolery--a real movie, after what feels like an hour-long commercial. But the movie never gets going in part because the cats in particular look terribly phony, with their bulging eyes and bared fangs; you half expect to see a puppeteer's arm somewhere in the frame. But perhaps it's intentional: Cats & Dogsis decidedly anti-feline, as dogs are portrayed as cuddly and loyal, while cats are conniving, manipulative monsters willing to team up with mice to spread their evil deed. The SPCA should prepare its shelters for a kitty influx.

 
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