Cats & Dogs

Director: Lawrence Guterman
Screenplay:John Requa & Glenn Ficarra
Stars: Jeff Goldblum (Professor Brody), Miriam Margolyes (Maid), Elizabeth Perkins (Mrs. Brody), Alexander Pollock (Scott Brody)
Voices: Tobey Maguire (Lou), Alec Baldwin (Butch), Sean Hayes (Mr. Tinkles), Jon Lovitz (Calico), Michael Clarke Duncan (Sam), Joe Pantoliano (Peek), Susan Sarandon (Ivy)
MPAA Rating:PG
Year of Release: 2001
Country: USA

Until a few years ago, Cats & Dogs would have been unthinkable as a live-action movie. But, with the rapid advances in computer-generated imagery and animatronic puppetry, the technical wizards behind Cats & Dogs have turned it into a kind of live-action cartoon, where the boundaries between live animals and various special effects are blurred almost beyond recognition. If you look hard enough, you can usually discern what is what, but the movie is so enjoyably silly in its fast-paced flurry of action that you don't have the time or the urge to do so.

The story is a spoof of secret-agent movies and summer action blockbusters, with suburbia's favorite pets, cats and dogs, taking the place of human characters. The movie imagines that cats and dogs are engaged in a high-tech war of espionage and power control of which their human owners are blissfully unaware. Dog houses turn into computerized control centers complete with flashing buttons and rows of monitors, collars hide hidden transmitters, and animals congregate in large meetings when we aren't looking to devise their plans.

Although the movie's tagline is "Who will you root for?," the dogs are clearly placed in the good-guy position while the cats are made enjoyable sinister. The protagonist is a beagle puppy named Lou (voiced by Tobey Maguire), who stumbles into the assignment of protecting his new owners, the Brodys, because the father, an absent-minded scientist type (Jeff Goldblum), is working on a formula that will eliminate human allergies to dogs. Lou is aided by several veteran dog agents, including Butch (Alec Baldwin), the leader; Sam (Michael Clarke Duncan), an overenthusiastic sheep dog; and Peek (Joe Pantoliano), one of those half-shaven little dogs that always look like they've had too much caffeine

Of course, cats don't want Prof. Brody to complete the formula because it would give dogs an edge in being the dominant house pet. The cats are led by a fluffy Persian with the ridiculous name of Mr. Tinkles (Sean Hayes), who is obsessed--as all monomaniacal villains are--with "taking over the world." Mr. Tinkles' right-hand feline is a calico named, well, Calico (Jon Lovitz).

Screenwriters John Requa and Glenn Ficarra wisely understand that the primary difference between cats and dogs is their levels of assumed dignity. Dogs, frankly, have no dignity, which is what makes them so lovable and has earned them the position as "man's best friend." Cats, on the other hand, are overstuffed with self-regarded dignity, manifested in their constant grooming and general looks of constant boredom.

Many of the best jokes in Cats & Dogs involve Mr. Tinkle's heightened sense of self-importance constantly being undermined by humans. For one, he is stuck in an enormous, gothic mansion as the pet of an extremely wealthy, but comatose old man. That wouldn't be so bad, except for the man's caretaker, a shrill, overweight woman (Miriam Margolyes) who devises all means of humiliation for Mr. Tinkles, all the while thinking she is doing him a favor (these include baths and a pink bonnet that Mr. Tinkles immediately rips off while proclaiming, "Evil does not wear a bonnet!").

Much of the humor in Cats & Dogs is obvious stuff that plays on the long-standing opposition between canines and felines. What works is the visual inventiveness with which it is all put together and the manner in which first-time director Lawrence Guterman achieves the feel of a three-dimensional cartoon, what Chuck Jones or Tex Avery might have done had they been able to work with computer animation and animatronics. Some of the best scenes are the most complex, such as the one involving a wild battle between Lou and a trio of ninja cats. The movie manages to work in a lot of movie in-jokes, including a parody of Matrix-style slow-motion and even the cliche about trying to figure out which wire to cut so a bomb doesn't go off (which is, of course, greatly complicated by the fact that dogs are color-blind).

Cats & Dogs is shaggy in parts, and some of the sentimentality is not earned by anything except the inherent cuteness of the animals. Yet, it's an enjoyable movie that uses special effects with some interesting twists. And, as an added bonus, despite the obvious temptations, potty humor is kept to an absolute minimum, which is something of an achievement in and of itself.

Copyright ©2001 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3)

James Kendrick

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