I grew up reading Charlotte's Web and watching Mister Ed and the Francis (the Talking Mule, with Donald O'Connor) movies on TV, so I have a very warm spot in my heart for talking animals. They can inspire wondrous flights of fantasy, lift the spirits with good-natured humor, and lead to a deep and abiding respect for nature and the environment.
Of course, watching the Yogi Bear cartoons once made me think I could take on a black bear foraging for food at our family's camping site in Yellowstone National Park -- I was six years old and had to be physically restrained -- so I can see the down side as well. Still, dozens of animated films have made it abundantly clear that it's possible to lend human voices to the animal kingdom without dumbing the material down to idiocy and, when done right (Babe, Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, Joe's Apartment), live-action talking animals also deserve to be a treasured part of our cinematic heritage.
But not these. Here are seven (mostly) live-action movies featuring talking animals that attack our sense of what makes a movie good.
7. Underdog (2007)
When Hollywood screws around with my cherished childhood memories, I strain to give them the benefit of the doubt. There's no excuse, though, for this abomination of a movie. I realize that Wally Cox's dweeby voice would be impossible for someone else to replicate, but Jason Lee? Really?! A huge chunk of the original cartoon's charm was the very simple (cheap) animation, which relied upon the writers to come up with witty things for the actors to say. None of that was transplanted to the live-action movie and I can't imagine any children looking back fondly upon this version of Underdog in the future.
6. Garfield The Movie (2004)
Yes, I love Bill Murray, but no, I do not love him as Garfield. What seems like a natural fit -- Murray with his unhurried, lazy delivery of wisecracks that sting and percolate as an unhurried, lazy, wisecracking feline -- never jibes, in part because Garfield the animated cat looks, at best, like a weirdly-drawn fourth cousin of Garfield the beloved Jim Davis comic strip creation. The body is not bad, but the face is a cutie-pie disaster. Note to animators: do not mess around (or try to "innovate") with a character that millions of people visit on a daily basis.
5. Scooby-Doo (2002)
Oh, the agony! I only watched the original series on TV because there was little else to choose from on Saturday mornings in the pre-cable era. The movie made my head split. In this case, the live-action actors, especially Matthew Lillard as Shaggy, are fine, but the computerized Scooby-Doo is a disaster, a beast that lumbers rather than lopes, with none of the goofy insouciance that defined his leadership role in the original gang. Oh, Scooby-Doo, where did you go?
4. Howard the Duck (1986)
Poor Howard. It could be argued that he is not an animal, but rather an alien creature. The important thing is that he's a DUCK and the movie fails on every level. The movie set back the cause for actors in animal suits for generations to come, and made it impossible to imagine that Steve Gerber's original comic book character would ever again have the opportunity to shine on the big screen.
3. Hot to Trot (1988)
If Howard the Duck represented Lea Thompson's low point as an actress, then surely Virginia Madsen can be forgiven for appearing in this talking-horse turkey. Decades earlier, Francis the Talking Mule and Mister Ed set the standard for this type of movie, but, though John Candy does the best he can with what he's given as the stock-market wise equine, the creative talent here decided to take the low road (hello, Bobcat Goldthwait!), and the result is disturbingly unfunny, unless you've been smoking funny cigarettes. On the other hand, with the stock market crashing this week, maybe Don the talking horse can turn things around.
2. Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat (2003)
"Scream and run," says the Cat at one point, and that's good advice for anyone contemplating watching this "movie." Many good, talented people worked on this film, so I'm not exactly sure how it turned out so badly. It may have been a case of the costumes and effects taking over the project, drowning out the magic at the heart of the Dr. Seuss tale. Or it could have been simple hubris, creative talent and/or executives imagining that they needed to modernize things to please "the kids." All the kids want is a good, funny, well-told story, man. Nobody likes to be patronized.
1. Dr. Dolittle (1998)
I just finished reading Mark Harris' marvelous book of Hollywood history, Pictures at a Revolution, which details the making of the 1967 version of Doctor Dolittle. Somehow that creaky, awful musical was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture (along with Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who's Coming for Dinner, whose behind-the-scenes stories are also told in Harris' book), an infamously unworthy honor that bypassed the remake by a country mile. It's not just that the 1998 version is witless and hackneyed and crude and insincerely preachy, it's also insulting to the memory of a bad original. With talking animals like this, who needs enemies?
Now it's your turn. Sound off in the comments section: which talking animals really get under your skin? Which should be banned from the big screen?