Tom Dey has never proven himself to be an especially subtle filmmaker, having directed Showtime, Shanghai Noon and Faliure to Launch. But Marmaduke is something else, something far broader and (therefore) more kid-friendly, placing it right in the same ballpark as Fox's other talking-animal flicks like Garfield and Alvin and the Chipmunks (that is to say, temporarily diverting for children; more or less torture for grown-ups). The under-ten crowd will no doubt delight by the goofy voices, the doggy dancing, the sprinkled-in scatological stuff, while the adults ... well, for any adult, to watch Marmaduke is to stare into the gaping, digitally-enhanced maw of fluffy mediocrity for a ninety-minute stretch of valuable lifetime.
The once mute-yet-meddlesome Great Dane has now become a chatty teenager (voiced with adequate charm by Owen Wilson), now uprooted from his comfy Kansas life to Southern California when owner Phil (Lee Pace) moves his family to take up a new job with an organic dog food company run by Mr. Twombly (William H. Macy, not eccentric enough). Marmaduke finds the new dog park to be equivalent to a new high school for him, with all of the cliques that such a basic idea entails. Mazie (Emma Stone) heads up the outcast mutts like Marmaduke, while alpha dog Bosco (Kiefer Sutherland) lords over the area like any good pedigree would. If you suspect that Marmaduke might then upset the order of things by becoming popular and, in the process, upsetting both his new love interest and the local bully... well, you'd be exactly right. This stuff really does write itself, and that's not a compliment.
The voice cast is ideal despite such lazy characterizations (Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the nervous one! Steve Coogan as the English one! Stacy "Fergie" Ferguson as the prissy one! Sam Elliott as the sage one! And George Lopez as the most egregiously Latino cat to ever be found in Kansas!), although the mouth-moving effects employed here are almost creepy when compared to the full-body renderings used once any pet is required to surf and dance and party. (Yes, the dogs surf and dance and party.) As for the humans, Pace bellows out "Marmaduke, nooooooooooooo!" as if to mark the distinct sound of dignity lost, wife Judy Greer gets to dole out little more than the inevitable "you work too much and don't listen to your kids" speeches, and Macy ends up flying through the air with slapsticky ease (his every somersault is that ol' Tom Dey magic at work).
The massive mutt's misadventures have fueled Brad Anderson's single-panel comic strip since 1954, so leave it to two of the minds behind the insufferable License to Wed to load it up with countless coming-of-age cliches -- in fact, lifting the entire plot from John Hughes' Some Kind of Wonderful -- and fill it out with the weakest of puns ("I've got a new leash on life," et al.) and cultural references bound to go bounding right over the little ones' heads (we're talking callbacks to Austin Powers, Almost Famous and Apocalypse Now, not to mention a relentless fixation with "The O.C."). To be even more specific, we're talking about a film with:
- Two dog farts,
- Three urine gags,
- Two hits to the groin,
- Only one animal belch,
- Two record scratch moments,
- Two uses of the phrase "Who let the dogs out?".
"I know it's juvenile," Marmaduke explains to the viewer, "but it's all I got." Unfortunately for us, it's also par for the course with virtually every modern family film. It's not enough to say that Marmaduke is no Babe, or no Beethoven; I'd argue that it doesn't even best the silly antics of Beverly Hills Chihuahua. Your kids won't know any better and will likely eat it up, but that isn't to say that they don't deserve something better than this numbing dross. Marmaduke the character may preach your usual lessons of acceptance and tolerance, but Marmaduke the movie makes a strong case for not giving every fleabag a pass.