All About the Animals
It’s hard not to take sides in Cats & Dogs. The movie starts from a cat’s eye view, that is, a cat-level camera. From this vantage point, we first see dogs, who appear goofy, loud, and easily fooled. This, however, is a trick. The movie is much more sensitive to the dogs’ perspective. In the world of Cats & Dogs, dog traits—for instance, loyalty like you see in war movies—is valued far more than the sneaky, well, catty nature attributed to cats. And this is a war movie, lite: it’s action-filled, but also a little bit funny, as the clash between good and evil is reduced to silliness.
I am usually highly suspicious of talking animals, especially live action animals with digitized lips. The critters of Cats & Dogs, however, are not too bad. For the film’s ninety minutes, I could suspend disbelief and think they were talking. Plus, it’s the animals who have all the good dialogue. The power-hungry Persian cat Mr. Tinkles, voiced by Sean Hayes (a.k.a. Jack, the true star of the NBC television series Will and Grace) has some great lines and comebacks. Lou, the puppy voiced by Tobey Maguire, is convincingly earnest and loveable. The human stars—the Brody family, with whom Lou lives—are fairly flat and dry. Even Jeff Goldblum as nutty Professor Brody is predictable and characterless. But that’s okay, because this movie is not called People and Other People. It’s all about the animals.
Since I grew up on animal films made for kids, the kind with limited but amusing special effects—Benji (Joe Camp, 1974), and my favorite, That Darn Cat (Robert Stevenson, 1965)—I did initially have the warm fuzzies for the retro suburbia of Cats & Dogs. There are clean, tree-lined streets, the skies are always sunny, and ladies in pink dresses wear aprons while baking. But the colors are a little too bright, everything is a bit too perfect. And all is not as swell as the humans would think: it’s American Beauty for pets.
The opening scene is attention-grabbing: it’s a fast-paced chase with twists and turns and tricks. This sets up the movie’s premise: we see the crime take place (the Brodys’ dog is “cat-napped” by a crew of cats in a van), and watch as the good guys—and they are mostly guy dogs—decide how to fight back. I have both kinds of animals as pets, and while the cats seem more devious, I will not go as far as to say they actually want to overthrow dogs as “man’s best friend.” In fact, I’m pretty sure cats would be fine with humans strictly as caterers. After thinking about the movie, I would like to say that perhaps the cats are just misunderstood. After all, in this movie, the cool humans want dogs. Dogs are good and manly. When young Scott Brody (Alexander Pollock) is told by a soccer coach that he’s really inept and should try out for the girls’ team, and his dad the professor is too busy to help him practice, it’s a dog, not a cat, who comes to the rescue, and spends time playing ball with young Scott. The only humans in the movie who have affinities for cats are the women: the first is an overbearing, plump domestic worker in full French maid regalia, Sophie (Miriam Margolyes), who likes to dress cats up in cute little costumes, and the second is Mrs. Brody (Elizabeth Perkins), fooled by a sweet little kitty who is not what he appears to be. Cat lovers are either silly girls or stupid girls. Boys like dogs. Dogs are manly.
It’s all very James Bond, including the clever and funny dog HQ, an aside to the plot, but not to be missed (don’t get more popcorn until after this scene). From my limited knowledge of dog breeds (sometimes I watch part of the Westminster Dog Show on cable), it seems all the dogs except the shepherd mix Butch (Alec Baldwin) are members of accredited breeds—Lou, our hero, is a Beagle; Ivy (Susan Sarandon) is a graceful Saluki hound; Sam (Michael Clark Duncan) is a sheepdog; Peek (Joe Pantoliano) is a Chinese hairless coiffed as if he’s just stepped out of Mad Max (1979). I once saw a dog with a similar coiffeur in Brooklyn, and almost wrecked my car laughing. While I didn’t laugh that hard during Cats & Dogs, I did chuckle a fair amount, then went home and felt morally superior to all those poor folks who think pets are dumb and that nothing ever happens in the suburbs.