I don't know the exact origins of Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, but it's probably safe to assume that it's the kind of project that was assigned to a couple of screenwriters by the studio to make a quick buck, not some Great American Screenplay that Ron J. Friedman and Steve Bencich have been working on in their spare time over the past nine years. Keeping that in mind, Cats & Dogs: TROKG is a minor miracle as a kids' flick sequel -- a nearly forgotten, seemingly one-joke property given a new leash on life by its playful, zippy screenplay.

You can tell Friedman and Bencich had fun bouncing gags off of one another in the writing process, to the point that even the most awful, obvious gags are still delivered with some small amount of charm. The audience may groan and roll their eyes, but they'll be ready for the next joke, be it hit or miss, mimicking the rhythms of a well-made parody film. And, dare I say it, Cats & Dogs: TROKG is a well-made parody film, sinking its canines into spy genre cliches with gleeful abandon, in a way that its predecessor never quite did.

There's even a logical character arc for Diggs (James Marsden), the German Shepherd hero of the film, that ignores the typical gag-inducing family movie message of just being yourself in order to make all of your dreams come true. Here, Diggs is a disobedient police dog, taken off active duty for not following orders, and given a second chance to make good when he's enlisted into an elite group of secret agent dogs who safeguard the world from bad kitties. His hard-learned lesson is to obey orders, because they're usually given for a reason. When he doesn't, and acts impetuously, bad things happen. It's an important message, this type of basic cause and effect, and it's shockingly missing from most entertainment aimed at children.

They also wisely ignore all of the human characters (Chris O'Donnell has maybe ten minutes of screen time as Diggs' former partner), placing almost all of the action and humor entirely on the animals. The special effects that turn the cats and dogs into super spies are a mixed bag of puppetry, computer animation, and real-life animals. They get the job done, but just barely. The only real stand-out from an effects standpoint is in the most pivotal role -- Kitty Galore, herself --an inspired, grotesquely hairless super-villain feline voiced by Bette Midler, whose plan to turn all dogs against their human masters is so large-scale it actually requires the cats and dogs to work together to save the world.

Cats & Dogs: TROKG is still too "kiddie" to be measured against something like Toy Story 3, in terms of all-ages appeal, but pointing that out is probably unfairly critical of something that's clearly not aimed at all ages. There's the usual, unavoidable jokes about butt-sniffing and kitty litter that will have the little ones cracking up, while you'll sit in silence. Despite its clever nods to James Bond movies and TheSilence of the Lambs, don't forget that this film's primary gimmick is watching animals talk to each other via movie magic. If you're old enough to recall Mr. Ed -- heck, if you're old enough to remember the Taco Bell chihuahua -- some of Cats & Dogs: TROKG's magic might seem like old hat.

The truth is Friedman and Bencich could've taken their paychecks and cranked out an uninspired bomb, but it feels like they made the Cats & Dogs film that they would want to see. I certainly can't imagine anyone making a better sequel to the mediocre original film than this. It's a bit of a backhanded compliment, but in the family comedy genre, where creativity usually diminishes exponentially with each passing installment, Cats & Dogs: TROKG is rarer than rare -- a kids' flick sequel that's genuinely better than the original.
categories Reviews, Cinematical