With Lee Pace, William H. Macy and the voices of Owen Wilson, George Lopez, Kiefer Sutherland. Directed by Tom Dey. Rated PG for some rude humor and language. 87 minutes.
Great Danes are big dogs – did you know that? Somehow the comic strip “Marmaduke” has been running for years on that simple notion. Now it is brought to the big screen in order to torture parents unfortunate enough to take their children to see MARMADUKE, the movie version. At film’s end, the dog lets loose with explosive flatulence to the disgust of his owners, and Marmaduke – voiced by Owen Wilson – chuckles to the audience that this bit “never gets old.” Alas, it was already old and unwelcome when he did it at the start of the film. It does, however, prove to be an apt metaphor for what this film does to moviegoers.
Sandwiched between these gas attacks is an utterly pedestrian story in which the Winslow family relocates from Kansas to Southern California so that Dad (Lee Pace) can take a job with an organic pet food company. The head of the company is played by the wonderful character actor William H. Macy and it says something that not even he can salvage the film. How could he when one of his gags is that he likes to walk barefoot through the local dog park?
The plot has Marmaduke considered a “mutt” by the other dogs because he’s not a pure bred, like Bosco (voiced by Kiefer Sutherland), the alpha dog at the park. Marmaduke sets out to make himself popular which involves mauling his cat friend (voiced by George Lopez), betraying his “mutt” friends, and throwing a wild dog party while the humans are away. It’s like they were trying to cross “Beethoven” (the series about another large dog) with “Superbad” and wound up with this mutt.
Marmaduke has to learn to be himself and be true to his friends while Dad has to learn to put family before work and to listen to others. The big scene where all this comes together has the dog and the owner being flushed down a viaduct after a water main break. Given the script, it may be the most symbolically appropriate moment in the whole movie.
Not much can be said for the acting. The humans all look embarrassed to be there, and with the possible exception of Sam Elliott as a grizzled stray, the voice cast doesn’t come off much better. The ever-annoying Wilson may have found his ideal character in the oafish dog, but people like Steve Coogan and Fergie had best hope no one notices their involvement here. Lopez, of course, has shown himself incapable of being embarrassed by his movie choices and may see this as the logical follow-up to “Beverly Hills Chihuahua.”
Although the film abounds with real animals, much of what we see is either enhanced or replaced by computer trickery. It’s clever, in a way, but a production number with dancing dogs may be the most horrifyingly unnatural thing shown on screen this year. How bad is “Marmaduke?” Let’s put it this way: Garfield, come home – all is forgiven.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.