Cats and Dogs

cats-and-dogs-2001Having lived under the same roof with both species in question, I was ready to embrace Cats & Dogs as a frisky, funny antidote to the bloat and crud we’ve been handed so far this summer. I was ready to accept the movie’s premise that dogs are loyal and friendly and cats are devious and evil; the two cats I currently live with, while not exactly evil, are still the sort who deposit interesting gifts on the bathroom rug and don’t remotely care if I catch them doing it. Cats & Dogs is a blend of live action, Jim Henson Workshop puppetry, and computer animation. In short, it’s yet another movie that would have little reason to exist without the novelty of bits and bytes; if it were done as a straight hand-drawn cartoon, it would seem to have no point, primarily because it’s been done that way so many times before — the war between cats and dogs has been chronicled since lines first moved on a screen (most notably by Chuck Jones, the Thucydides of this particular war).

The premise, courtesy of scripters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, has amusement potential: Cats used to lord it over mankind until dogs rose up and helped their best friends, humans, overthrow the feline oppressors. Now the cats, led by the unfortunately named Mr. Tinkles (voice by Will & Grace‘s Sean Hayes), have a plan: stop nutty professor Jeff Goldblum from inventing a formula that will eradicate human allergies to dogs. (You’d think the cats would want to befriend Goldblum and persuade him to concoct a comparable serum for cat allergies, but never mind.) After the family dog is “catnapped,” Goldblum’s wife (Elizabeth Perkins) brings home a perky new beagle for their bratty kid (Alexander Pollock, who isn’t exactly a find), who christens the dog Lou (short for “Loser”).

Tobey Maguire comes in for voice work on Lou, and he and the rest of the actors who make the dogs talk — Alec Baldwin as the gruff combat veteran Butch, Joe Pantoliano as the surveillance expert Peek, Susan Sarandon as the vampy Ivy — are mostly stuck on sincere mode; it’s as if dogs were incapable of guile (if so, they must suck at the espionage we keep seeing them practice in montages). At least the dogs are convincing visually, though; except for the talking scenes — no one has yet mastered the illusion of talking animals, though the Babe movies came closest — the dogs move like real dogs. It’s obvious actual dogs were used whenever possible.

The cats, on the other hand, are disgraceful. Those who live with cats and watch them a lot will be offended by Cats & Dogs, not because the movie slanders kitties but because nobody who made the movie seems to have any idea how cats move. Cats are constantly shown doing things cats can’t do, moving in ways no cat can. Since the dogs are generally realistic, the cats look all the more puppety and cheap. Really, these cats are only a step or three advanced from Toonces the driving cat. When an actual cat makes a rare appearance onscreen, it sticks out and looks wrong — “Hey, that’s a real cat. It’s actually moving gracefully. Looks weird.”

The photo of the dour-looking cat leader addressing his minions under a giant banner reading “MR. TINKLES” promises a sillier, funkier time at the movies than you get; so does Sean Hayes’ participation as Mr. Tinkles — he never gets to be as bitchy as you want him to be. Cats & Dogs is, at its absolute peak, faintly amusing. I chuckled at a few bits, like an audience of mice flipping through Mr. Tinkles’ planbook in unison, or the way an esteemed dog (voiced by Charlton Heston) gets the attention of all the other canines at the World Council of Dogs. I certainly didn’t laugh much at the humans; poor Elizabeth Perkins seems stranded, and Jeff Goldblum is sidling up to the non-performance stage of his career — he knows all he has to do is show up, stammer a little, and put on that hipster grin of his that tells you he’s really smarter than this. If so, why is he, or anyone else, in this movie?

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