Destiny Is in Our Paws: Cats & Dogs (2001)
Working with animals is one of the hardest things to do in Hollywood. Dogs can be trained to do some things, but convincing a cat to sit still for a shot isn’t quite as easy. The difficulty only increases when the animals are forced to interact. In Cats & Dogs, a movie detailing the covert war between the two most popular pet species, CGI is used quite heavily. It’s not subtle about the CGI use, either. Not only is the mouth animated for the words, but the entire face moves to express the emotions of the dialogue. This leaves the animals looking extremely unnatural. What’s surprising about the film is that even with rubbery looking animals, the goofy tone makes the cartoonish animals seem almost natural. It builds a world that’s so fun and silly that the outlandish looking animals fit right in place.
The world of Cats & Dogs is one in which cats have been striving for world domination for all of history. They even achieved it in Ancient Egypt, when they were the ruling class and kept humans as slaves. Their current plan, under the leadership of Mr. Tinkles played by Sean Hayes, involves stealing a serum that cures dog allergies and reversing it. That would make all humans allergic to dogs and therefore cats would be in charge again.
This plan is even more outlandish than it sounds, somehow involving an army of mice and a Christmas tree factory. Hayes is perfect as the brains of the operation, eager to throw off the cloak of domestication in exchange for world domination. At his side is Jon Lovitz as Calico, the Pinky to Tinkles’ Brain. These two have a dynamic that I can’t help but find hilarious. The completely unaware sidekick constantly annoying the genius evil boss isn’t exactly a new direction, but Hayes and Lovitz put a lot into their line readings and the animation adds even more life to it.
Hayes and Lovitz aren’t the only big names in this cast. Jeff Goldblum plays the scientist who created the anti-allergy serum. Tobey Maguire voices his family’s new puppy, Lou. Alec Baldwin plays the experienced canine-agent who has to train Lou to be an agent and protect the formula. Susan Sarandon plays an older stray who’s left the agency and encourages Lou to view his mission as more than just a serum to protect, but a family to love.
This cast does a pretty decent job, especially for the weak script they were given. Goldblum brings his usual charm, playing a quirky scientist whose work is pulling him away from his son. The part is cliche and predictable, but Goldblum delivers each line with the unique wit and physicality that made him a star. Sarandon and Baldwin’s characters seem to have some kind of romantic history and they have a surprising amount of chemistry, considering they’re voicing dogs with CGI faces.
The animation for the dogs is a bit more distracting than it is for the cats. With the cats, almost every move they make is either puppetry or CGI, unless they’re sitting still for the shot. Dogs, on the other hand, are much more trainable. That means that whenever a dog is talking, it’s clear that it’s the actual dog that’s walking and jumping and shaking his head, but his mouth, eyebrows, and ears are moving of their own accord to go along with what he’s saying. It’s a bit jarring at first, especially in some of the bigger dogs like Sarandon’s Saluki-breed. Some of the smaller dogs are also strange looking. The dog-tech expert, Peek (a Chinese Crested Hound voiced by Joe Pantoliano) seems to be a puppet in the close up shots and live action in the wides.
Much like in real life (this author is a cat person), the movie only really works when the cats are around. They allow the directors to stray away from what the limits of an animal actor and do whatever they want with the characters. When a team of ninja cats parachute into the movie, you can feel the movie pushing the envelope of what they can get away with. If cats can parachute, maybe they can also throw boomerangs. If they can throw a boomerang, maybe they can get together to drive a car. Maybe they can kidnap (or catnap, in the parlance of the film) a family of three humans. By the time they’re spraying a green foam on an army of CGI mice, it seems extremely possible.
There’s a lot to dislike about this movie. The plot is nothing special, and the dialogue is pretty uninspired, but the imagination of the movie is fun and the humor is silly. The pacing is brisk and never leaves you sitting through a scene with too much dialogue without cutting back to the dogs or staging another cat attack. It’s clearly a movie for kids, full of slapstick and fart jokes, but there’s more than enough kid left in me that Cats & Dogs remains enjoyable.