In the cornball kiddie tradition of his “Scooby-Doo,” “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” and “Smurfs” films, director Raja Gosnell’s “Show Dogs” combines live-action actors with real and CGI talking creatures in service of groan-worthy comedic adventure. The hero in question here is Max, an NYPD police pooch (voiced by Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) who’s forced to partner with Will Arnett’s FBI agent while going undercover as a pageant contestant. Think of it as “Miss Congeniality” for dogs, replete with the sort of slapstick humor, puerile gags and for-adults-only pop-culture references required of such endeavors. Its frantic pace should make it a mildly amusing diversion for the younger set, but its juvenile imagination (or lack thereof) is likely to drive anyone over the age of 7 barking mad.
During a Manhattan sting operation gone awry that puts him in direct conflict with federal agent Frank (Arnett), street-wise Rottweiler Max fails to save baby panda Ling-Li from a rare-animals smuggling operation. When it’s deduced that the criminals will next be conducting their business at Las Vegas’ prestigious Canini Invitational dog show, Frank and Max reluctantly team up as contestants. Of course, since Max is a tough-talking loner who loves his leash-less life, the idea of primping and strutting about in a competition is anything but pleasant. Making matters more palatable, though, is French Papillion Philippe (Stanley Tucci), a former champ who becomes Max’s de facto coach — and who, having gone mad after losing his top-dog status, now has a biting temper.
Max’s transformation necessitates getting his rear end waxed and learning to stay completely still when his private parts are inspected. Along with a blast of canine flatulence, those bits are aimed squarely at preschool viewers who still think bathroom and crotch jokes are the apex of hilarity. In that regard, the lack of subtlety in “Show Dogs” is par for the course. Yet given Gosnell’s familiarity with this type of undertaking, it’s surprising how tossed-off and clumsy the effort feels, especially with its creaky, one-note collection of supporting characters: Australian Shepherd Daisy (Jordin Sparks); feisty fanboy pug Sprinkles (Gabriel Iglesias); dreadlocked Buddhist Komondor Karma (Shaquille O’Neal); flamboyantly freaky Persephone (RuPaul); reigning crown-holder Dante (Alan Cumming); and a trio of Max-acolyte pigeons.
Arnett proves game for all manner of absurd indignities, whether paired opposite Max (whose speech he can’t understand) or Mattie (Natasha Lyonne), a human dog handler working with the FBI. This includes a late fantasy sequence in which he performs the climactic routine in “Dirty Dancing” with the pooch, accompanied by outer-space fireworks. Unfortunately, the script by Max Botkin and Marc Hyman relegates Frank to being merely the object of Max’s frustration, thereby negating his chance for genuine humor. The rest of the two-legged cast is similarly squandered in roles that require them to broadly act cheery or astonished as circumstances demand. While the vocal performers are somewhat more expressive, they too are stuck delivering the bluntest of dialogue — comprised of functional exposition, self-conscious one-liners and platitudes related to the film’s tacked-on message about learning to respect the worldview of others.
The mix of real and CGI animals creates a strange disjointedness in the action that’s exacerbated by the decision to computer-animate their mouths and faces. Despite adequate work by cinematographer David Machie and editors David Freeman and Sabrina Plisco, Gosnell’s approach turns everything cartoonish in an unattractive way. That’s intentional, to a certain degree. And yet from its flat visuals to Heitor Pereira’s blandly upbeat score, the film’s lack of inspiration at every level — technical, narrative and comedic — is so crushing that, save for pre-adolescents, most will consider this a top contender for worst of breed.