The James Clayton Column: Who let the dogs out?

James doesn't really like dogs. And he's not warming to movies about them either...

Marley & Me

The brains behind the movie industry, it appears, have gone barking mad. Taking a look at some of the options that have been available at my local multiplex lately, I discern a particular trend of what I will term ‘Mutt Movies’: films that feature dogs in a dominant leading role.

I’ll admit that ‘man’s best friend‘ is a mantra that I sadly don’t subscribe to. I’m not a huge fan of dogs, mainly because they’re actually a bit boring in their domesticated pet form and I detest the way they lick their private parts and use their tongues as toilet paper before bounding up at you. Beyond the bad hygiene it’s nothing personal: it’s just I’d rather own an iguana or a pet snake. Dogs are sort of middle-of-the-road, stuck in limbo between the vicious danger of wolves and the cute conservatism of something like a gerbil, altogether ending up being an animal that inhabits the worst aspects of both.

Still, that’s just my subjective interpretation of the slobbery creatures and the majority of mainstream Western society seems to like dogs as animals that they can co-habit with without wanting to kick them or eat them. The box office backs up the popular conception that the canine species is much-loved by humanity as lately we’ve seen a surfeit of features that celebrate dogs and feature them as a central plot point.

Family-friendly flicks like Hotel For Dogs and Beverley Hills Chihuahua stand as two recently released live-action examples. As for computer-animated movies, Disney dished up Bolt with John Travolta handling the voice of the title character backed by the yappy tween-queen Miley Ray Cyrus. Bolt also comes in 3-D, which means upon adopting a pair of psychedelic specs you receive the visceral experience of repeated-assault from Travolta’s four-pawed screen counterpart as he erupts out from the screen and down your throat every few minutes.

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Mutt Movies are nothing new and dogs have been doing box office business for years in a great many films that are too boring, too numerous and too smelly to list here. The fact that, to date, there have been six films in the Beethoven series (the latest, it turns out, produced last year) suggests that someone must really like doggy motion pictures or that the ‘man’s best friend‘ mantra is still on the minds of audience-chasing movie moguls.

Marley & Me is the latest Mutt Movie to make its way to cinemas and stars Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson, who actually sort of looks and acts like a blonde man-version of Scrappy Doo. It’s a pity that the film doesn’t revolve around the blossoming of a beautiful romance on the basis of a shared love of reggae music; Marley turns out to be an uncontrollable Labrador Retriever who causes consternation and plays a major role in the life dramas of the main characters. Aniston and Wilson are likeable enough and perfectly capable of making passable comedy flicks without the assistance of an untrainable white fluffball. Plus, remembering Aniston’s beautiful blind ferret Rodolfo in Along Came Polly, I’m not impressed by her pet infidelity. Dear poor short-sighted Rodolfo: it turns out the heartless hussy didn’t love you after all…

Thinking it over, my favourite ‘dog’ flicks – Dog Day Afternoon, Straw Dogs, Reservoir Dogs – don’t actually have dogs in them. With the exception of the German Shepherds that make a brief public bathroom appearance in Mr. Orange’s backstory in the last film on the above list, the canine species don’t hold an especially esteemed place in my movie memory. As far as animals go, monkeys have a higher calibre when you think of such classics as Planet Of The Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey and King Kong. I surprised myself when I found that I actually cared and formed an emotional bond with Will Smith’s pet pooch Samantha in I Am Legend, though that may just be because Robert Neville’s relationship with the live animal was significantly more natural than the small-talk with plastic shop-dummies.

Pondering a bone of contention then, why are there suddenly a multitude of Mutt Movies doing the rounds? Seeing as everything is currently being credited to or blamed on the crippling global economic crisis, I can only imagine that the rise of the wet-nosed ones in Hollywood is in part due to a desire to reduce production costs. If studios are looking to save an absolute fortune on A-list wages, then sticking an animal in front of the camera and giving it top billing makes a lot of commercial sense. In truth, you’ve got to admit that there’s not really much difference between canine cast-members and human actors. Ultimately, both performers just want unconditional love, preening and pampering and may throw a bitch-fit if they don’t have a good director taking them for walkies.

If it’s not the result of the recession, then I fear that the great canine conspiracy to conquer Hollywood is in a well-advanced stage. After suffering the ignominy of patronising heavy petting underneath their human masters, Fido is showing his fangs and the woofalution is underway and making rapid progress in the corridors of motion picture power. I’d anxiously suggest that the canine influence is already firmly established in the institution: is it a coincidence that the exulted movie-of-the-moment riding high on universal acclaim and an eight-Oscar hit rate is entitled Slumdog Millionaire?

Maybe Cruella de Vil was right to want to skin ‘em all alive before they got too numerous (Who the hell really needs 101 Dalmatians? What kind of childhood trauma engendered such a desperate need for unconditional affection on such an immense scale?). Before they and movies about them multiply further, I’d urge all cinema audiences to beware of the dog and question whether the ‘man’s best friend‘ proverb is a mutual proposition.

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Oh, they’re wagging their tails now and panting pathetically, but I detect the presence of pernicious agendas behind those puppy dog-eyes. Dawn Of The Dogs: if we don’t exercise caution we could be witnessing an oncoming doggy dystopia. First they take Hollywood, next stop: canine global conquest…

James’ previous column can be found here.