Spy Versus Spy
In the whimsical world of Cats and Dogs, cats are megalomanical plotters bent on taking over the world, while dogs are counter-insurgency operatives devoted to protecting mankind. For some cat lovers, this may seem offensively pro-dog propaganda; but the movie, like Churchill, has a point. Dogs are social creatures, pack animals who naturally band together with their fellows (canine or human) against an outside threat. Cats are naturally solitary creatures, each of whom tends to want to be the king of his own particular hill.
Not that I have anything against cats. But there’s a particular breed of cat fancier who looks down at dogs precisely for qualities like their obedience, loyalty, and desire to please, explicitly preferring the fierce independence and proud impassiveness associated with cats. I wonder whether this kind of cat appreciation isn’t often rooted in a misguided human ideal — whether such people don’t prefer cats because they themselves like the idea of being remote and independent.
Yet God has made us social creatures, called to community with one another and ultimately to the community that is the Blessed Trinity. For all that we may appreciate cats for being what God has made them, the fact is that we ourselves are happier and better if we are, to put it bluntly, more like dogs. And, in a story of anthropomorphic dogs and cats, especially if they’re battling one another, it’s more natural to identify with the dogs.
In Cats and Dogs, this battle plays out in cartoony 007 or Spy-vs.-Spy scenarios covertly carried on out of sight from unsuspecting humans. The notion of a hidden world of colorful high-powered espionage lurking beneath prosaically domestic appearances was of course also the premise of this year’s highly enjoyable and successful Spy Kids.
Good Clean Fun
That film brought great goofy gusto and visual verve to its picture of a world in which parents may turn out to be much cooler than their kids think. Cats and Dogs may be playing the same game as Spy Kids, but it isn’t in the same league. For one thing, it lacks the inspired set and prop design that elevated the earlier film to luminous eye candy. More importantly, it lacks Spy Kids’s engaging characterizations and winningly positive view of parenthood and family life.
What it does have is a comparable level of rollicking energy, along with some real laughs along the way. That’s enough to qualify Cats and Dogs as a pretty decent family flick in its own right. The zany slapstick violence is in the classic old Warner-Brothers cartoon tradition, and much of the humor stems from familiar animal traits. (In one scene, a canine agent races through an underground tunnel in a rocket car — with his head stuck out the window.)
It’s also pretty cool to look at. By now, of course, we’ve all seen animals talking by the magic of digital post-production and high-end puppeteering, in movies from the classic Babe to the less-than-classic Eddie Murphy Doctor Dolittle flicks. In Cats and Dogs, animals not only talk, they do kung fu. Never mind if it looks fakey — it’s about as realistic as many live-action kung-fu movies, not to mention the Coyote–Road-Runner cartoons that are another inspiration. (Looking at these kung-fu fighting housepets, I was reminded of Samuel Johnson’s famous remark about dogs walking on their hind legs: “It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.”)
Anyway, as those who have seen Shrek can attest, just because it doesn’t look realistic doesn’t mean it doesn’t look cool. Consider the remarkable effect of the obviously animatronic expressions on the face of an otherwise live-action cat. Don’t bother trying to figure out where the puppet ends and the cat begins; the computer wizards have hidden their tracks well.
Unlike Shrek and Doctor Dolittle 2, both of which relied on low humor and off-color jokes, Cats and Dogs is good, clean fun, only occasionally slipping in material that might seem crass in another film but somehow works here. (When a veteran dog agent discovers that the trained recruit he was promised has been replaced by an inexperienced puppy, he groans, “He’s still got his you-know-whats for crying out loud!”)
Best Family Film of July
The plot (and there is one) involves a feline conspiracy to subvert the research of an eccentric scientist (Jeff Goldblum) who wants to develop a formula to cure humans who are allergic to dogs. That would give dogs an edge in the housepet wars; but an evil white Persian named Mr. Tinkles (voiced by Sean Hayes) has a clever scheme that would give cats the ascendancy by instead making everybody allergic to all dogs. (This whole business of a “formula” to cure allergies is kind of quaint; I just heard on the radio about scientific attempts to bioengineer a hypoallergenic cat. I wonder how Mr. Tinkles would feel about that?)
This storyline manages to be reasonably clever and entertaining for awhile, though it runs out of steam before the end. At ninety minutes, the movie feels long — particularly whenever the story focuses on the lame human characters.
It’s here, especially, that Cats and Dogs suffers from inevitable comparisons to Spy Kids. Jeff Goldblum’s uber-dorky scientist dad and Elizabeth Perkins’s pressured Realtor mom don’t hold a candle to Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino. (It doesn’t help that Goldblum sleepwalks through the role.) And give me the refreshingly natural sibling interaction of Spy Kids’s Juni and Carmen any day over young Scott Brody (Alexander Pollock), who’s got such a preternatural case of the sulks that when his mom brings home an adorable puppy he names it “Lou” — short for “Loser.”
Yet Hollywood family fare has been so dismal for so long that, despite its shortcomings, Cats and Dogs still comes as a breath of fresh air. Together with Spy Kids (and, for older children perhaps, Shrek), Cats and Dogs begins to wipe out the bad memory of real losers like How the Grinch Stole Christmas and 102 Dalmatians. In fact, Cats and Dogs is the best family film parents can look forward to until August — when Dimension Films is scheduled to rerelease a revamped special edition of Spy Kids!
Rating: B-; MPAA: PG
2001, Warner Bros. Directed by Lawrence Guterman. Voices: Tobey Maguire, Alec Baldwin, Sean Hayes, Susan Sarandon. Actors: Jeff Goldblum, Elizabeth Perkins, Alexander Pollock
(Content Advisory: Cartoon violence; fleeting profanity.)
(Steven D. Greydanus does film criticism for a variety of media. He is the webmaster of the Decent Films Guide website.)
(c) 2001 Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved. Used by permission.