Pet shop noise

A feline named “The Russian” issues an ultimatum: Insidious dog propaganda must be stopped, now!

A feline named “The Russian” issues an ultimatum: Insidious dog propaganda must be stopped, now!

Rated 3.0

In Cats & Dogs, the new family-oriented comedy from Warner Bros., the domestic animals of the title are locked in a ruthless struggle for supremacy. It’s a one-joke premise, and director Lawrence Guterman and writers John Requa and Glenn Ficarra milk it for more than it’s worth.

Cat lovers, be warned: this movie takes definite sides in the canine-feline war, and you won’t be happy with the side you’re expected to root for.

The battleground is the home of Professor Brody (Jeff Goldblum), a single-minded, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids-type of scientist who is working on a formula that he hopes will eventually eradicate one of the most insidious medical disorders known to humankind—dog allergies. Everything, even his relationship with his devoted wife (Elizabeth Perkins) and his soccer-loving but insecure adolescent son (Alexander Pollock), takes a back seat to the Professor’s crusade.

The strategic importance of Professor Brody’s laboratory is obvious. The dogs bend every effort toward protecting Professor Brody’s work, while the cats, led by their evil genius, a Persian named Mr. Tinkles, are out to steal the formula and, if possible, reverse it so that every human being on earth will become allergic to dogs.

You get the idea, I’m sure. Movies don’t come much sillier than Cats & Dogs, and both Goldblum and Perkins are hard pressed to keep a plaintive what’s-happened-to-my-career look from spreading over their faces.

Other actors in the cast have an easier time of it, mainly because only their voices are on hand. Alec Baldwin plays Butch, the dog agent stationed next door, who takes the lead when the Brody’s dog Buddy is “catnapped” and taken out of the game. Clearly, Professor Brody and his family must be supplied with a new dog. But instead of the seasoned agent he expects, he gets Lou (voice by Tobey Maguire), an ingenuous beagle pup whose name, unfortunately, is short for “Loser.” Other voices are supplied by Michael Clarke Duncan and Joe Pantoliano as Butch’s fellow agents, Susan Sarandon as a sexy stray Afghan, Sean Hayes as the malevolent Mr. Tinkles, John Lovitz as his calico henchman and Charlton Heston as the top dog at Canine Central.

The obvious model for Cats & Dogs is those old Warner Bros. cartoons where the strutting bulldog Spike and his eager sidekick Chester used to match wits (if that’s the right word) with Sylvester or Claude Cat. Requa and Ficarra’s script doesn’t have a thought in its head beyond being a feature-length, live-action version of those, and all the clichés of James Bond and Mission: Impossible are recycled as workmanlike gags, paced at a brisk four-legged trot by Guterman. All in all, the movie is harmlessly pleasant and goes down easily enough.

And yet, there’s an irony here. Those old Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, when they were on top of their game (which was about nine times out of 10), were as funny and inspired as any short comedies Hollywood ever cranked out. And they weren’t aimed only at kids.

Cats & Dogs, on the other hand, is ultimately trivial and forgettable, as disposable as the jokes in a package of Laffy Taffy. I sat there grinning, chuckling and occasionally even marveling at some of the effects combining real dogs and cats, animatronic models and digital animation. But when I left the theater, I had forgotten virtually the entire movie by the time I was halfway to my car.

Parents who wring their hands over the dearth of wholesome family entertainment won’t find anything to complain about in Cats & Dogs. The comedy is bland and inoffensive, and the fart-and-potty, dogs-sniffing-each-other’s-rear-ends jokes are, on the whole, kept to a minimum. I’d say more, but for the life of me that’s as much about Cats & Dogs as I can remember.

Now if you want to know about some of those great old Looney Tunes that Requa, Ficarra and Guterman use as their example, I could go on for hours. Those I remember as if I had just seen them this afternoon.