Jeff Goldblum, Elizabeth Perkins

Cats & Dogs" is a mangy, moth-eaten affair that barks up the wrong trees on both the narrative and technical sides.

“Cats & Dogs” is a mangy, moth-eaten affair that barks up the wrong trees on both the narrative and technical sides. Obsessed far more with high-tech espionage paraphernalia, routine scenes of destruction and anti-cat propaganda than with creating an involving storyline or appealing characters, either two- or four-legged, this comically intended battle of the species is family entertainment for families that will buy anything. Premise alone has drawing power, and emphasis on electronic gear won’t hurt with the “Spy Kids” crowd, meaning that Warner Bros. should be able to draw sizable numbers at first but shouldn’t count upon heavy repeat biz or word-of-mouth to maintain a strong B.O. pace.

It’s amazing that, six years after “Babe,” no film has come along to rival, let alone match it, in the talking animal department. Commercially speaking, the new “Dr. Dolittle” films have probably come the closest, and “Stuart Little” was reasonably effective in combining critters with humans despite an animated feel. Disney’s “Dalmatians” pictures unfortunately declined to have the dogs speak when their animated predecessor dictated that they really should have, and this latest attempt is so mechanical looking in spots that you often wish it had been done as the animated picture it was originally intended to be.

The initial miscalculations, however, are all in the script by first-time scenarists John Requa and Glenn Ficarra. Instead of creating something like a turf war in which the interests of dogs and cats could be mentally and emotionally weighed, film offers an intangible and, it has to be said, ludicrous situation in which physically ugly fascist-style cats intend to take over the world. Not only does this rep a turnoff for cat lovers from the outset, but it renders moot the main line of the picture’s ad copy — “Who Will You Root For?” There’s no choice.

Initial hostilities are actually instigated by a hound, who chases a feline all around a suburban neighborhood until deservedly being catnapped. For some reason, this incident provokes the assemblage of international canine superagents dedicated to fighting “the great cat menace,” a movement run by a flat-faced white Persian kitty named Mr. Tinkles out of a Xanadu-like mansion.

Unexpectedly recruited to the canine cause is Lou, a Beagle puppy recently adopted by the Brody family. Dad (Jeff Goldblum) is a perennially distracted scientist who spends all his time in his home lab researching a cure for humans’ allergies to dogs. Thoroughly neglected are his wife (Elizabeth Perkins) and son Scott (Alexander Pollock), the latter a dour kid whose only defining trait is how lousy he is at soccer.

As the would-be allergy cure holds great importance to both sides, the Brody household becomes the front line of the war, which sees Mr. Tinkles send in feline ninja fighters and a Russian agent as part of a plan that long thereafter climaxes in another catnapping — this time of the Brodys — and in a weird attempt to make the entire world allergic to dogs by sending out an army of infected mice to spread the infectant.

But no vested interest is generated in any of this since nothing remotely real is at stake and there are no characters to warm up to. The human beings are total write-offs — Goldblum, decked out in unattractive sideburns and goatee, is forever ducking in and out of his lab, Perkins has nothing to do and Pollock is mostly glum –while the cats are uniformly mean, sneaky and duplicitous. Still, Sean Hayes injects a measure of wit into some of Mr. Tinkles’ more disdainful lines and co-writer Ficarra has a bit of fun voicing the condescending Russian commando.

That leaves the dogs, and only two of them are drawn with any particular dimension, Lou and Butch, the ground forces leader. Alec Baldwin endows the latter with a gruff stoicism born of experience, while Tobey Maguire makes the former amiable enough even if the script hardly makes the pup a very inspiring central hero.

In conception and execution, it feels like a big mistake to have designed extreme physical action capable only by cartoon figures, then to have forced “real” animals to enact it. Of course, “anything” is possible now through a combination of actual and virtual creatures, but to have purportedly real dogs and cats flying through the air, flinging weapons at each other and enacting “Crouching Tiger” and “Matrix”-style martial arts contorts them in unnatural ways and makes them look weird and unappealing. Some blatantly mechanical-looking pooches don’t help either.

Additionally, the existence of an alternate reality in which animals can talk with one another without humans knowing about it requires a certain consistency of approach, a notion “Cats & Dogs” both flaunts and disregards. The point of reference here is not only “Babe” but the “Toy Story” features, in which the characters were so cleverly put through their paces in ways that never interfered with their status as inanimate toys from the human p.o.v. Here, the existence of a whole infrastructure of scientific equipment and animal military operations is too prominent and elaborate to be explained away somehow; part of the delight of many animal stories lies in the thought of the creatures getting away with so much under the nose of human beings, but that line is not walked skillfully here.

To be sure, there is a great deal of technical know-how at work in this picture, but it is not applied in a way that’s much fun.

Cats & Dogs

Production

A Warner Bros. release presented in association with Village Roadshow Pictures and NPV Entertainment of a Mad Chance/Zide/Perry production. Produced by Warren Zide, Craig Perry, Andrew Lazar, Chris DeFaria. Executive producers, Bruce Berman, Chris Bender, J.C. Spink. Co-producers, John Requa, Glenn Ficarra. Directed by Lawrence Guterman. Screenplay, John Requa, Glenn Ficarra.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Julio Macat; editors, Michael A. Stevenson, Rick W. Finney; music, John Debney; production designer, James Bissell; art director, Sandra Tanaka; set designers, Nancy Brown, Brian Fisher; set decorator, Lin MacDonald; costume designer, Tish Monaghan; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Larry Sutton; supervising sound editors, Richard L. Anderson, Elliott Kortez; visual effects supervisor-associate producer, Ed Jones; animatronic effects supervisor, David Barclay; creature effects, Jim Henson's Creature Shop; visual effects, Rhythm & Hues; Russian cat animation, Tippett Studio; animal action, Boone Narr; assistant director, Patrice Leung; second unit director, Charles Gibson; second unit camera, Attila Szalay; casting, Marci Liroff. Reviewed at the Bruin Theater, L.A., June 30, 2001. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 87 MIN.

With

Professor Brody - Jeff Goldblum Mrs. Brody - Elizabeth Perkins Sophie - Miriam Margolyes Scott Brody - Alexander Pollock Voices: Lou - Tobey Maguire Butch - Alec Baldwin Mr. Tinkles - Sean Hayes Ivy - Susan Sarandon Peek - Joe Pantoliano Sam - Michael Clarke Duncan Calico - Jon Lovitz The Mastiff - Charlton Heston Collie at HQ - Salome Jens Russian Kitty - Glenn Ficarra Ninjas - Danny Mann, Billy West
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