Friday, May 18, 2018

Playing Dead: Lame "Show Dogs" looks harmless but panders to lowest common denominator

Show Dogs (2018)
90 min., rated PG.

Never has there been a live-action talking-animal comedy that has been life-changing—not counting 1995’s vastly superior “Babe”—but some know how to charm and divert all audiences. Then there is “Show Dogs,” not a sequel to “Snow Dogs” that actually makes that 2001 Cuba Gooding Jr. starrer look like “Paddington 2.” Harmless and genial in nature as it may look, “Show Dogs” is actually a creatively lazy, notably unfunny dog, as it’s never, not once, laugh-out-loud funny and not particularly clever. Mercilessly but surprisingly, the flash-in-the-pan “Who Let the Dogs Out” is never played, but “Turner & Hooch” is referenced and there is a meta line about talking dog movies not being made anymore, and yet, here we are. Just because a film is targeted to kids and their families does not mean it has to be this listless, pandering, lame, and in short supply of wit and charm.

Doody calls for a plot, even in a goofy, over-the-top action comedy like “Show Dogs,” but just think “Miss Congeniality” with talking dogs. Rottweiler Max (voice of Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) is NYPD’s finest member of the K-9 unit, but he botches a sting operation to rescue an endangered baby panda when blowing the cover of FBI agent Frank Mosley (Will Arnett). They immediately clash, even over what music to play on the radio, but of course, the two must team up and go undercover at the prestigious Canini Invitational Dog Show in Las Vegas, where the smuggled panda is going to be sold to an exotic animal collector. In order to do that, Max needs to undergo a makeover and the proper training, and the moody Frank has to pose as a dog handler who actually likes his canine friend, so they must get tips from veteran dog groomer Mattie (Natasha Lyonne). Can Max and Frank save the panda, win the dog show, and become best friends?

Setting a new low for family entertainment, “Show Dogs” is just bizarre kids-will-like-anything dreck. And if young children love anything more than talking animals, it’s a kidnapping and smuggling plot where the climax involves a bad guy firing shots and an adorable CG panda getting thisclose to a charter plane propeller. Director Raja Gosnell previously helmed 2002’s “Scooby-Doo,” 2004’s “Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed,” and 2008’s “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” so it stands to reason that his latest is another talking dog movie—hooray for consistency!—but what he and screenwriters Max Botkin and Marc Hyman (not to be confused with the physician and best-selling author) come up with is desperate and groan-inducing. For parents keeping score to see how appropriate this is for their kids, there is one flatulence-in-a-bathtub joke and a plot point involving private-part inspection at the dog show, which at least comes with the territory. As in all or most talking-animal movies, the animals chat with one another but the humans cannot hear them. It's too bad that the mouth-moving, canine-karate effects are so shoddy that they can’t even rise to the comparative seamlessness of “Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore.”

Voicing protagonist Max, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges is fine but unmemorable. Though his gruff voice does match the aggressive breed, one can imagine someone else having more fun with the role. Of the vocal talent who bring more energy to standing in a sound booth, a few do blessedly stand out as vaguely tolerable bright spots. Stanley Tucci is gleefully and deliciously haughty as the flamboyant, French-accented Papillion, Philippe; the mere idea of Shaquille O’Neal doing the voice of Karma, a pacifistic, New Agey Komondor, is kind of amusing; and Jordin Sparks lends the only real sweetness as Max’s love interest, a Border Collie named Daisy. In the primary human speaking roles, Will Arnett and Natasha Lyonne do what they can, both trying to look like they believe in the material and enliven thankless, threadbare roles before collecting their paychecks. It’s obviously asking too much for a family film to give Frank any sort of character traits or background outside of his job and the plot—Was he married? Does he have children? What are his hobbies?—to make him anything more than a workaholic dud. Lyonne at least gets to be spirited as Mattie, and something is actually learned about why she’s come to work with the FBI.

Littered with pop-culture references amid the wacky animal antics, "Show Dogs" strives—nay, strains—for laughs that never come. If any smiles are cracked, there is briefly one—and even that will soon escape the mind—and it involves the nonsensical sight of a tiger ziplining through Las Vegas’ Freemont Street and uttering the line, “This is the ‘Life of Pi.’” A diverting soundtrack also goes to waste, relegating LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” and NONONO’s “Pumpin Blood” to background noise for the animal voices and the jaunty, caffeinated, generally farcical movie score. Without even imparting any noble sentiments or teachable messages, it’s a totally frivolous lark with close to nothing to recommend it or be worth inflated ticket prices. At 90 minutes, it might have brevity on its side but feels more like three hours long. Even if options for an early-summer movie the entire family can enjoy are sparse right now, everyone deserves better than the grim “Show Dogs.”


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