Cats and dogs are both intelligent, well-organized species that talk. A
secret war between them has been going on for over a thousand years. In
ancient Egypt, cruel feline overlords herded their human slaves around
like cattle, until an army of canines came to our rescue, thereafter
acting as benign guardians of mankind.
At least that's the way the dogs tell it.
Why, you may ask, don't we remember such a momentous historical event?
According to one pooch, the answer is simple. "Humans are primitive," he
explains to a pup. "They can't sense earthquakes, they can't smell fear
and they won't accept responsibility for their own farts."
So there you have it.
"Cats and Dogs" is a raucous comedy based on a genuinely inventive
concept. Kids, I suspect, will love the movie and most adults will find
it moderately entertaining. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's
frustrating to see such a promising undertaking fail to realize its full
potential. The problem is that the screenplay was written for children,
with scattered bits thrown in for adults, even though the premise
screams for a multilayered approach. With another rewrite or two, "Cats
and Dogs" could have kept the adults laughing as hard as the children.
I'm convinced the authors were up to the task. Anyone capable of having
an angry dog shout, "Son of my mom!" could surely have pulled it off.
Still, there are treats to be had, beginning with the storyline. An
uneasy, but long-standing truce between cats and dogs breaks down due to
a megalomaniacal feline and a preoccupied human scientist. Professor
Brody (Jeff Goldblum) is on the verge of a major breakthrough: a simple
formula that will immunize mankind against all dog allergies. If
successful, the balance of power between the two four legged species
would shift. For the power-mad tabby Mr. Twinkles (voiced by Sean
Hayes), the situation offers him a golden opportunity - if he can
destroy the formula and infect man with a substance that will increase
dog allergies, he can. RULE THE WORLD!
The dogs will have none of this, of course, so they make arrangements to
place one of their top agents in the Brody household. But a mistake
happens and, instead of the James Bond of pooches, the new Brody "pet"
turns out to be a wet-behind-the-floppy-ears pup named Lou (Tobey
And so the battle begins. The dogs work undercover to bring Lou up to
snuff, with an embittered veteran named Butch (Alec Baldwin) heading up
a team including Sam (Michael Clarke Duncan), Peek (Joe Pantoliano) and,
to the discomfort of Butch, Ivy (Susan Sarandon), an ex-lover who knows
him all too well. Meanwhile, Mr. Twinkles sets his master plan in
motion. I won't reveal the specifics; suffice to say it involves
threats, kidnapping, deception on a grand scale and ninja cats.
For the most part, the special effects are convincing. Computer
animation is employed to make the animals appear to speak and change
facial expressions, with animatronic puppets used for scenes requiring
unusual physical adroitness. The CGI is quite well-done and, more often
than not, the puppetry works. But hoo-boy, when it doesn't - those
critters look like Muppets being struck by lightning.
As with "A.I. Artificial Intelligence," the actors playing non-humans
are far more credible, and likable, than the "real" people. On the dog
side, Tobey Maguire gives Lou the right mix of naiveté and brashness,
Susan Sarandon is wise and smoky as Ivy and Alec Baldwin does fine work
essentially re-playing his character from "Pearl Harbor" (only with
better dialogue). In Cat Land, Jon Lovitz is fine as a surly assistant
and, in the key role of Mr. Twinkles, Sean Hayes provides the
appropriate grandiose tones for the would-be kitty Napoleon.
Oh, but when the humans take center stage, the film devolves into a
carbon copy of one of those wretched live-action Disney family comedies
from the '60s. Alexander Pollock is bland as son Scott and Elizabeth
Perkins is even blander as Mrs. Brody, an ineffective nurturer who
spends most of the movie fretting. As wacky scientist/lousy father
Professor Brody, Jeff Goldblum is simply embarrassing, slathering his
patented stammer over the walking stereotype.
If "Cats and Dogs" is successful enough to warrant a sequel, I have a
couple of suggestions for the filmmakers. First, take your time and
write more jokes for the grown-ups. Second, if a maniacal cat threatens
to kill the Brody family, let him.
Copyright © 2001 Edward Johnson-Ott