The best family films (like Chicken Run and Shrek) follow the same formula that made the 1960s TV cartoon "Rocky and Bullwinkle" so beloved. Start with one part physical comedy and innocuous humor for the kids and add enough clever asides, double entendres, and pop culture and movie references to keep adults happy. The latest entry to fit this description is Cats & Dogs, a funny and inventive take on the classic struggle that legitimately merits the phrase "fun for all ages."
The ad campaign for the film asks, "Who Will You Root For?" but there’s no doubt that its makers stand squarely behind Man’s Best Friend. Here, cats are an evil horde bent on world domination – and dogs are the only barrier between them and success. The balance of power between cat and dog is a tenuous one, soon to be upset forever by the work of Professor Brody (Jeff Goldblum) who is trying to perfect a vaccine for people who are allergic to dogs. So naturally, the Feline Liberation Front wants to sabotage Brody’s efforts. They’re led by a preening white Persian named Mr. Tinkles (hilariously voiced by Sean Hayes of TV’s "Will and Grace").
This Mr. T is a Machiavellian megalomaniac with no patience for incompetence. He has ruthless teams of Siamese ninjas and Russian Blue demolition experts at his disposal.Meanwhile, the Canine Intelligence Service counters with their top agent Butch (Alec Baldwin) when a CIS agent working undercover as the Brody family dog is catnapped.Butch plans to plant another CIS operative at the Brody house but a slipup results in a rookie beagle puppy named Lou (Tobey Maguire) ending up on the job.Butch adds other CIS agents (Chinese hairless Joe Pantoliano and sheepdog Michael Clarke Duncan) to his team to battle the feline menace.
The film combines live animal action, CGI, and state-of-the-art puppetry (supplied by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop) to create a convincing world of covert animal intrigue. These cats and dogs can talk, use computers and collar radios, drive vehicles, and plant plastic explosives. But while they may be more shrewd than the humans they live with, they still have their innate animal urges and limitations.A meeting hall filled with noisily arguing dogs is quieted, not by rapping a gavel on a lectern, but by opening a can of dog food.Butch has a rocket sled at his disposal, but he still needs to stick his head out the window while he’s piloting it.And Mr. Tinkles may be leading troops aimed at world conquest, but he nevertheless has to submit to being dressed up in frilly outfits by his family’s maid – causing Tinkles/Hayes to caustically sniff, "Evil does not wear a bonnet!"
Lawrence Guterman may be a recent film-school grad directing his first feature, but here he demonstrates a veteran comic touch, deftly mixing enough pratfalls to keep kids happy with classic movie scene parodies and periodic bon mots for their parents (a surprised dog exclaims, "Son of my Mother!"). The middle of the film drags a bit – mostly when it focuses on the Brody family, who aren’t anywhere near as interesting as the animal antics surrounding them – but nicely picks up steam for its complex and rousing final showdown, not only featuring the requisite explosions and chases but a giant nozzle spouting green goop and hundreds of mercenary mice lined up like storm troopers in a Leni Riefenstahl documentary. Cats & Dogs is clever, technically accomplished, and consistently amusing – it’s a sunny summer treat.
– Bob Aulert