The deficiency of fart jokes — only two, actually — doubtless will disappoint adolescent boys, and the novelty of Owen Wilson providing a California stoner-style voice for the title character, a humongous Great Dane, wears thin after 15 minutes or so. But “Marmaduke” still might end up fetching a tidy sum at the summer box office, given the relative lack of live-action, kid-centric fare currently available at megaplexes. And while Fox isn’t likely to score numbers comparable to those of its “Alvin and the Chipmunks” franchise, homevid biz for this uninspired comicstrip-spawned opus could be impressive.
Freely adapted from the long-running syndicated comic created by Brad Anderson and Phil Leeming, “Marmaduke” relies heavily on CGI trickery and aptly cast vocal talents for a multitude of gags involving anthropomorphic shenanigans. Clueless “two-leggers” remain totally oblivious as their canines — and an impudent cat voiced by George Lopez — freely converse with one another. That’s the central gimmick, and helmer Tom Dey (“Failure to Launch”) milks it for all it’s worth, then continues milking, like a dairy farmer desperate to make the mortgage.
Scripters Tim Rasmussen and Vince Di Meglio have cobbled together a plot from bits and pieces of other family-friendly pics about ambitious daddies, discontented kids and the learning of life lessons. Advertising ace Phil Winslow (Lee Pace) packs up his wife (Judy Greer) and their three children and moves from Kansas to Orange County to work for the demanding president (William H. Macy) of an organic dog-food company. Also making the move is Marmaduke (voiced by Wilson), the great big family dog, whose attempts at hipsterish cool are often undercut by his klutziness.
Marmaduke manages to smoothly fit into his new surroundings by befriending three unpretentious mutts — skittish Giuseppe (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), urbane Raisin (Steve Coogan) and tomboyish Mazie (Emma Stone) — at an O.C. dog park. But the impulsive Great Dane also wants to hang with the pure breeds in the park. He’s immediately drawn to Jezebel (Fergie of Black Eyed Peas), a beautiful collie who, unfortunately, is the main squeeze of Bosco (Kiefer Sutherland), who rules the dog park with a paw of iron.
In a kidpic such as this, you might expect Phil to get into trouble when he neglects his family — and Marmaduke — while pursuing career goals. And you might expect Marmaduke to get into trouble when he neglects true friends while pursuing entry into the “in” crowd. Not surprisingly, expectations are fulfilled. Indeed, the only real surprise in “Marmaduke” is a cliffhangerish climactic sequence that, weirdly enough, plays like an outtake from “2012.”
The humans on view are unremarkably bland — even Macy merely goes through the motions — so it’s up to the animals and their unseen spokespersons to generate chuckles and sustain interest. Thanks to the CGI wizards, the four-legged stars get to dance — and surf! — as well as move their mouths while speaking. Except for Wilson and Lopez, however, the only real standout among the vocal talents is Sam Elliott, briefly but effectively intimidating as a legendarily fierce English Mastiff named Chupadogra.
With extended closing credits, “Marmaduke” clocks in at 88 minutes and feels longer. It’s worth noting that a few jokey allusions to drugs — gags that, presumably, are aimed at viewers older than the pic’s target demographic — are scattered throughout the action. Maybe the filmmakers suspect that, after “Marmaduke” is available on DVD, certain folks might enjoy watching all these talking animals while sampling some herbal supplement?