A filthy-rich fantasy for these cash-strapped times, “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” features the voices of Drew Barrymore and much of the industry’s top Latino talent in a live-action talking-dog lark that should please young pups. At the same time, it peddles tacky stereotypes in thick Hispanic accents, effectively ceding whatever dignity the breed regained since the “Yo quiero Taco Bell” campaign went off the air. One thing’s for sure: The Mouse House will realize a fine balance of trade on this one.
The Elle Woods of pocket pets, Chloe doubles as both companion and ultimate fashion accessory to her owner, celebrated cosmetics designer Vivian (Jamie Lee Curtis). Viv takes great pleasure in pampering her pet, which has given the dainty white-haired Chihuahua (voiced with just the right dose of California-girl bounce by Barrymore) something of a superiority complex toward lesser dogs, such as Papi (George Lopez), the brown-skinned stray who hangs around the estate with hunky Mexican landscaper Sam (Manolo Cardona).
When Viv is called away to Europe on business, she entrusts her prized pooch to less-than-responsible niece Rachel (Piper Perabo), but instead of following Viv’s detailed itinerary of doggie Pilates and pedicures, the party girl whisks Chloe off to Mexico, allowing the dog to get loose while she’s out dancing with friends.
Instead of letting Chloe have fun with her “freedom,” the film paints Mexico as a dangerous place full of conmen and criminals. Shivering in her custom pink booties, with only a surly German Shepherd named Delgado (Andy Garcia) to help her, Chloe must contend with a dog-fighting Doberman (Edward James Olmos), a sticky-fingered street rat (Cheech Marin), an immigrant-smuggling coyote (Ed F. Martin) and a sinister-looking thug (Jose Maria Yazpik) who aims to ransom Chloe back to her owner.
Kids won’t pick up on the politically incorrect subtext, of course, and the performances supply far more than ethnicity to the characters. The lone gringa, Chloe may be a brat, but Barrymore possesses one of the most endearing voices in the biz, and she plays the role with helpful nuance: She is polite in her bigotry, naive in her self-entitlement and gracious toward those small kindnesses other characters show her. Garcia aces an equally tricky role, as Delgado cautiously opens up to Chloe — the standoffish bonding making sense over time. (Other highlights include Placido Domingo as proud Chihuahua leader Montezuma and “Ugly Betty’s” Michael Urie as a gay pug.)
Writers Jeffrey Bushell and Analisa LaBianco are in familiar territory, which makes the witty repartee more important than the story. Gone are the days when Disney critter features, such as “The Incredible Journey” or “The Legend of Lobo,” permitted the animals to have adventures without talking. Here, the chatty canines are both smarter and more entertaining than their human counterparts.
Curtis has little screen time, and Perabo and Cardona’s sole function seems to be illustrating that interracial romance can also exist between people. Seeing the human couple end up together may distract kids from Chloe’s unclear arc: If she’s ultimately destined to return home to Beverly Hills, what lessons will she take with her from her harrowing Mexican journey?
With years of experience in the field, visual effects crews have aced the task of manipulating doggie jowls so they convincingly appear to be speaking, although they do seem to have gone overboard with the eyebrows. Instead of striking a familiar expression and holding it, the way real dogs do, these characters’ digitally-enhanced faces appear to be in constant motion. Two completely CG characters — a rat and an iguana (Paul Rodriguez) — blend right in, though a mountain lion confrontation seems to have been rendered on the cheap.
Director Raja Gosnell, of the “Scooby-Doo” live-action series, has experience with these live-action/animation hybrids and shows confidence in engineering a crowd-pleaser from the ingredients at hand. Gosnell may not be aiming high, but the pic cuts together smoothly enough, with an added jolt from such obvious song picks as “Rich Girl” and “Low Rider” (but amazingly not dog-movie standard “Who Let the Dogs Out”).