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Gone to the dogs 

by Ed Symkus


The suburbia that's presented in the opening frames of this disappointing "kids only" fantasy film could have come right out of the minds of either Steven Spielberg or Tim Burton. Everything is picture perfect -- lawns are manicured, people are happy, it's a beautiful summer day. Then the slapstick begins, and the names of those two filmmakers rapidly disappear from thought. It's not that there's anything wrong with slapstick. But the wild and often painful type that's presented here (it's only a few minutes before a big bloodhound who's chasing an orange tabby runs smack into a big tree) just doesn't fit with what purports to be all the cute surroundings.


This is a film that's chock full of things that don't fit. It tries very hard to tell the story of cats and dogs fighting for the future of mankind by hinting that this struggle, assisted by all kinds of super spy techno gadgets, has been going on for ages, even though humans don't know anything about it. For the record, the dogs are the good guys and the cats are completely evil. The main plot concerns a scientist (Jeff Goldblum) who's very close to discovering a cure for dog-related allergies to humans. Dogs are very happy about this. But cats are out to destroy his experiments and maybe even find a way to reverse things, making people allergic to all dogs. Nasty creatures, these felines.


But in telling the story, the filmmakers have attempted to cover two audiences at once, since that's the best way to make money. You know, get the kids all excited in ad campaigns, get the kids to make their parents bring them, then get both kids and parents to like what they see, so they'll tell their friends.


But the film only succeeds on a couple of those levels. The ad campaigns have been very good, making the film look much better than it really is. And there's no doubt that young audiences -- 7 or 8 seems to be the right age -- are going to like what they see. But adults will most likely be staring at their watches, since this 85-minute film often plays like the non-action scenes in Pearl Harbor.


The cuteness of the dogs and the foul moods of the cats get tiring pretty quickly. The specter of both canines and felines endlessly running into and getting mashed against walls and thick windows stops being funny after the second or third time. Even kids will stop laughing at this because it's so overdone.


What is funny can be summed up in a couple of instances. First of all, the rogue cat who is masterminding all of this dastardly stuff (including trying to kill all dogs) is a white Persian. Now there's a nice bit of casting, since James Bond fans will recall that the British spy's archenemy, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, never showed his face, but always had a white Persian cat in his lap. The other moment is during a peek into the Dog Training Academy, where a battery of pooches is being run through their paces by a lead dog, who is shouting out, "Sit! Down! Roll Over!" while they all do so in unison.


But most of the rest of the humor feels forced. Much of it is clever, but not enough of it is all that funny. Kudos do go to the folks who trained these animals so marvelously (although some of the amazing effect is ruined when exaggerated puppets are obviously used in place of the real animals in a couple of instances). It's too bad the same can't be said about the humans in the cast. First time feature director Lawrence Guterman just didn't know what to do with Jeff Goldblum or Elizabeth Perkins, who plays his wife. Goldblum comes across as a dull, stupid man, and appears to be reading, not acting, his lines. And Perkins looks lost, not knowing what she should do as a character or an actor. Then there's the case of their son, Scott (Alexander Pollock), just another case of bad choice in casting because he's the personification of bland, no one that any kids watching are going to care about.


So who will win in this battle between four-legged creatures? Will humans be allowed to live out their lives, blissfully unaware that so much is going on around them? Will cats finally get their comeuppance? The answers are openly telegraphed, but it doesn't really matter. In fact, no one should be surprised if, while the kids are munching on their popcorn and laughing out loud from time to time, their parents might be sitting next to them having a little snooze.

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