Cats and Dogs
directed by Lawrence Guterman
(Warner Brothers, 2001)

Lawrence Guterman, experienced with animation and humor (he worked on Antz), directs a family fantasy feature with a premise that depicts the two most common household pets warring secretly since the dawn of civilization. One would think that by the 21st century, détente might be at hand, but not so in this quirky film, its brilliant moments spoiled by being relentlessly anti-cat.

Dogs, on the other hand, get shown in an overwhelmingly positive light, being the defenders of mankind while cats, in this polarized view, scheme to take over the world. The feline leader, a fluffy white male Persian the humans call Mr. Tinkles (voice of Jean Hayes), plans to dominate by stealing the work of eccentric, independent scientist Professor Brody (Jeff Goldblum). The researcher hopes to develop a serum that will eliminate dog allergies among people, a benefit the cats wish to prevent by reversing the formula, once it gets in their paws, to enhance the allergic reactions of two-legged folk to canines. The desired result -- humans wouldn't keep them as pets any longer and the felines would move in and take over completely. How the now harmful agent would be distributed worldwide constitutes the cleverest surprise plot twist near the end of the movie.

The dogs, especially a top operative Anatolian shepherd named Butch (voiced by Alec Baldwin), get wind of the cats' conspiracy and they arrange for one of their best agents to protect the Brodys, an all-American suburban family that includes, besides the already mentioned Dad, real estate agent Mom (Elizabeth Perkins) and their pre-adolescent son (Alexander Pollock). Because of a mix-up, a totally inexperienced young beagle named Lou (voice of Tobey Maguire) gets sent to be the Brodys' guardian. Butch, under pressure of time, must take the puppy under his wing, so to speak, and train the eager recruit in the covert canine espionage and secret service business.

Some of the genuinely inspired shenanigans that ensue include the opening in which the global network of dog operatives gear up for action and the infiltration of the Brodys' home by a pair of parachute-jumping ninja-kitties, soon followed by the Russian -- a cute gray, button-eyed kitten-assassin (actually a misidentified British shorthair) armed with deadly explosive hairballs. This just-mentioned menace takes a truly heroic effort to overcome.

The combination of trained animals, animatronic puppetry and CGI skillfully render the antics of preternaturally precocious pets believable in a cartoonish sort of way, for the special effects benefit by not being 100 percent realistic, thus avoiding the creep-you-out factor. Similar to Toy Story, the critters hide their sentient behavior whenever a "two-legged" appears, thus providing many humorous moments. Also enjoyably portrayed, the interactions of the Brody family members, especially the boy with Lou the beagle and the zanily preoccupied father learning to spend more time with his son. Clever cinematography with points of view at pets' eye level most of the time, immerses the viewer into the animals' world where people, furniture, trees and buildings loom hugely over-head. The best parts of Cats and Dogs happen when the animals' activities spoof James Bond-type spy thrillers complete with hidden gadgets, concealed elaborate electronic devices, espionage mannerisms and jargon, all accompanied by the excellent score which also parodies the genre.

Alas, all the pluses of Cats and Dogs get outweighed by the huge minus, the perpetuation of ailurophobic attitudes that 600 years ago would get felines burned for being the familiars of witches. Misguided notions about the sneakiness and treachery of cats abound in the movie in which every single one of these creatures is a villain. Not one nice feline can be found, yet every dog represents a paragon of devotion. Such an unrealistic polarity truly rankles, for a large proportion of the audience for Cats and Dogs lives in households where both felines and canines live together quite harmoniously. Animal lovers in general know that cats can be equally affectionate and faithful compared to dogs, but they express their positive attributes in a more independent manner. How unfortunate that a mass market movie with such wide exposure should spoil its virtues with such simplistic and wrongheaded portrayals of beloved household companions.

[ by Amy Harlib ]
Rambles: 4 August 2001

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