Rated PG - Running Time: 1:30 - Released 7/4/01

The latest entry in the talking animals column is Lawrence Guterman's Cats & Dogs, an occasionally funny but generally weak kids' movie about a global battle between felines and canines for primacy among their human companions. Director Guterman, in his feature film debut, uses a combination of trained animals, glaringly obvious animatronics, and the no-longer- novel novelty of computerized lip movements to present a story in which back yard beasties use state-of-the-art spy technology and organizational skills much more sophisticated than we humans would ever suspect to gain control of an anti-dog-allergy formula. It includes the voices of many high-powered celebrities such as Tobey Maguire, Alec Baldwin, Susan Sarandon, and Jon Lovitz, plus the on-screen presence of Jeff Goldblum, Elizabeth Perkins, and Alexander Pollock, but still can't pull off more than an occasional chuckle for anyone over 12.

If you're a "cat person," this film may not be for you, because the cats are definitely the villains. In a routinely whimsical scenario, young beagle pup Lou (voiced by Maguire) is purchased by Mrs. Brody (Perkins) when the previous family dog is kidnapped by a bunch of rogue cats. Although Lou just wants to play ball with his new owner, Scott (Pollock), he is hastily inducted into the national spy dog agency by neighborhood canine spy leader and hardened veteran Butch (Baldwin), who lets him know the gravity of the situation. It seems that Scott's absent-minded-professor dad (Goldblum) is working in his basement laboratory on a secret formula that would cure the human population of all dog allergies. The cat leader, a megalomaniacal white longhair named Mr. Tinkles (Sean Hayes, Will & Grace), knows this will give dogs an unfair advantage in the pet department, so he and his bumbling assistant Calico (Lovitz) enact a fiendish plot to break into the lab, steal the formula, and reverse it, making everyone allergic to dogs. But Butch has a crack staff and the latest technology on his side. Assisting him are Peek (Joe Pantoliano), a surveillance specialist with an impressive array of computers; Sam (The Green Mile's Michael Clarke Duncan), a sheepdog who tries to keep an eye on things despite the shaggy hair blocking his view, and a smart and sultry Collie (Sarandon), who apparently has a romantic past with Butch.

I wish I could say this film was more engaging. The story, penned by newcomers John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, is suitable fare for its primary purpose of making children laugh, but the script lacks any significant attraction for adults, and most of the cast members appear mainly to be putting in time. Maguire offers adequate puppy-esque energy as Lou, and Baldwin and Sarandon have enough experience to at least sound interested, but for the most part, the actors in this film are being paid for allowing their names to be attached to the project, not for any outstanding character work. Meanwhile, we have the computer-generated moving-dog-lips effect that thrilled us all when it first appeared in Babe, but which has become so common (and so sloppy) it is beginning to wear out its welcome. Nifty effects are fine, but once they become an everyday occurrence, it's necessary to support them with more substantive written material than what is presented here. Guterman and the fine folks at Warner Bros. probably know that, but they also know they can count on the innocence of children to excuse a multitude of sins. The only trouble is, some poor sucker has to drive the little darlings to the theater. ***

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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