Anyone who has ever lived with a cat or dog already knows what this movie finally reveals to the rest of the world – they are the ones who are really in charge. While humans go about their business, tossing a ball here, scratching behind the ears there, they never notice that cats and dogs use extensive technology to conduct all kinds of surveillance and spy missions – and then to clean up all the mess afterwards, before the humans get back home.
It turns out that once cats ruled, back in the days of ancient Egypt. But with the help of dogs, humans took over, and cats have been trying to regain their position ever since. As this movie begins, an evil rogue cat named Mr. Tinkles (that name would probably make any cat into an evil rogue) has a plot to foil the development of an injection that would cure allergies to dogs. If he can get the formula, reverse its effects, and expose every human in the world to it, then everyone would become allergic to dogs, and cats could take over. This is the worst affront to dog dignity since those Siamese-if-you-please cats got Lady into such big trouble.
The movie is silly fun, a throwback to the classic Disney days of “The Absent-Minded Professor” and “The Shaggy Dog.” It moves along swiftly thanks to a brief running time (less than 90 minutes) and spectacularly seamless special effects work. It also benefits from outstanding voice talents: Tobey Maguire (Lou, the young pup called upon to save the world), Alec Baldwin (Butch, the senior agent, using some of the same world-weary courage and avuncular twinkle that he gave to James Dolittle in “Pearl Harbor”), and Susan Sarandon (kind-hearted canine femme fatale Ivy), as the good guys, and Sean Hayes (from “Will and Grace,” enjoying the role of evil villain Mr. Tinkles), and Jon Lovitz (his sidekick) as bad guys. Live action duties are undertaken with good spirits by Elizabeth Perkins, Jeff Goldblum, and Miriam Margolyes, who does a funny twist on her role as the Nurse in the Leonardo DiCaprio version of “Romeo and Juliet.”
All of this is aimed at 8-year-olds, so expect some PG-rated litter box humor, a couple of mild references to whether a male dog has been fixed and a lot of slapstick pratfalls and head-bonks. All of this was a huge hit with the kids in the screening I attended. They got a special kick out of the ninja cats (with a now-obligatory “Matrix” joke). There were a couple of good moments for parents, too, including a dog who explains that she is not homeless, just “domestically challenged,” a canine news commentator named (of course) Wolf Blitzer, and having the dogs read the Miranda warnings to thousands of arrested mice. The movie comes down on the side of loyalty and families. And Mr. Tinkles’ punishment is both funny and (literally) fitting.
Parents should know that the movie features several potty jokes and a great deal of comic/fantasy violence (no one hurt). Some children may be upset about an elderly character on life support, especially when his condition is used for comedy. A boy is sad when his dog disappears, and is reluctant to make friends with a replacement. The movie is mildly sexist -– although one of the spy dogs is female, she is not a part of the team, and the message that goes out to the spy dogs is prefaced with “gentlemen.” A boy’s feelings are hurt when he does so badly at soccer try-outs (off screen) that the coach suggests that he try out for the girls’ team. Although Michael Clarke Duncan (of “The Green Mile” and “See Spot Run”) provides voice talent, the movie has an all-white Dick and Jane feeling.
Families who see this movie should compare the way that the cats and dogs deal with failure and setbacks and their ability to work as a team. Those are the keys to the resolution. Families should also talk about Ivy’s comment, “Sometimes mad is just a way of hiding how sad you are.” This is a very important concept for children to understand. They may also want to talk about the way that Goldblum’s character gets so caught up in his work that he forgets how important it is to spend time with his son.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Absent-Minded Professor (Colorized) and it’s colorful but dumber remake, Flubber. They might also enjoy a gentler comedy featuring a dog and cat, The Adventures of Milo & Otis/ And every family should enjoy the irresistible pig story, Babe.