Bland Dog!

Published: October 14, 2003
Categories: Reviews

If you have a spare moment, close your eyes and say a little prayer for my boyfriend Ed, won’t you? It couldn’t hurt, and the boy deserves it.

It’s part of Ed’s job description as the boyfriend of a Muppet fan to be my date on the opening night for every new Henson movie. That’s not big time commitment wise, since there’s been maybe one movie a year for the last few years. But since The Bad Thing happened in 1997, I’ve had to do a little ‘splaining in order to get him into the theater.

Good Boy, I assure him, will not be as bad as Buddy. He’s skeptical. “What if it is?” he says. It won’t be, I say. In an infinitely expanding universe, it is theoretically possible that someday there will be a movie as bad as Buddy, but this won’t be that movie.

This is an innocuous Talking Dog Movie, I say, and TDM’s are nothing to fear. “Are TDM’s innocuous?” he asks. TDM’s are nothing but innocuous, I say. I promise you, Buddy is gone. It won’t be back. Show me on the doll where the bad movie touched you.

As you can see, going to a Creature Shop movie requires a good deal of prep work on my part. It’s not really fair that we walk into Good Boy with this kind of attitude, but it’s not my fault. Blame the ape.

The movie itself makes no apology. It opens with a shot of blue sky and dogs bouncing in and out of shot over the credits. It looks like the dogs are on a trampoline below the shot, but then a dog bounces down from above, if that makes sense. I don’t have a word to describe the concept of “bouncing down from above,” because it’s not an event that happens in nature. Anyway, the sequence clearly establishes the director’s vision. This Movie, it boldly states, Is About Dogs. If you’re here for the fish movie, that’s two doors down.

Then we get the following shots: Twelve-year-old-boy sleeping in his bedroom. Something falls from the sky and crashes in the woods. Boy hears the noise, wakes up, cocks his head, goes back to sleep. Cute dog walks out of crashed spaceship.

And that right there is the whole philosophy of the movie: We don’t have time to mess around. In the first sequence, they have to establish a kid, a wrecked spaceship, a dog. And then they go and do it. Hard to say at this point whether that’s compact storytelling or a lack of imagination, but it gets the job done.

The twelve-year-old boy, by the way, is Owen — a cute kid played by Liam Aiken. He’s a good, solid kid actor with a nice smile. I won’t say a bad word about him. Unfortunately, his parents are Molly Shannon and Kevin Nealon, who both act like cheerfully undiagnosed lunatics.

Owen comes downstairs and announces that he’s saved up enough money; today’s the day he’s going to adopt a dog. Molly and Kevin shoot each other worried glances. They’re not sure now is the right time to get Owen a dog. They shift, they squirm. Maybe they should wait until they move to the new house. I have no idea why they’re so freaked about getting a dog for a twelve-year-old; they’re acting like they’re letting him fly a plane or handle radioactive material.

Their irrational fear of pet adoption is especially peculiar because they live in a singularly dog-obsessed community. There’s thirteen human characters in the movie, and all they ever talk about is dogs, dogs, dogs. It’s your standard unnamed tree-lined family-movie suburban paradise, with big houses and clean empty streets, so there’s nothing to get in the way of going completely bugfuck over dogs. We never see any of Owen’s neighbors when they’re not petting their dogs, pampering their dogs, fretting over their dogs. Early on, we see a character reading the local newspaper; the front-page headline is FIRE DOG LEADS WOMAN TO SAFETY. Welcome, in other words, to Dog City.

The spaceship dog gets picked up by Animal Control and taken to the pound, so we segue into the big adoption sequence. Owen and his parents gaze dewy-eyed at the dog in its cage, while the Animal Control guy looms over Owen’s shoulder and says the dog seems mean — he probably won’t get adopted. Owen looks up at him, and his voice catches: “You wouldn’t put him to sleep, though… would you?” The music swells. Cut to Owen walking his new dog to the park.

You see what I mean about compact storytelling? This is about as stripped-down as a movie can get. We might as well be reading the script breakdown. They could have cut to a blank screen and the words “ADOPTION SEQUENCE,” and we wouldn’t have missed a thing.

That night, the dog — who by now is named Hubble — sneaks out of the house. Hubble trots up to the crash site, and messes with a space communicator that’s about the size and shape of a Simon game. Owen wakes up and follows him, and then somehow the communicator explodes and sends out a huge column of light.

From this point on, Owen can understand Hubble, who has the voice of Matthew Broderick. I’m still trying to figure out what happened in that scene; I’m checking my notes. Communicator explodes, column of light, Owen wakes up the next morning, dog is Matthew B. “Let’s say that your hearing got a lot better,” says Hubble, and that’s the best explanation the movie has to offer. Let it go.

Hubble gathers the four neighborhood dogs together in Owen’s garage and explains to them that he’s from Sirius — the Dog Star, get it? — and he’s been sent to Earth to check up on them. Apparently, dogs were sent to Earth thousands of years ago to colonize the planet, and now the Greater Dane has sent Hubble to compile a report on how well they’re doing.

Owen can understand all the other dogs too, so there’s a lot of amusing dog dialogue. “You can understand me?” one of the dogs says. Owen nods. The dog blinks. “… Can I have a cookie? No — ten cookies! No — twenty cookies!” That’s the amusing dog dialogue. They also do the “passing through Uranus” joke.

So at a certain point, I have to address the opposable thumbs issue, and now is as good a time as any. The alien dogs build spaceships. They have Simon-game communication devices. They have little necklaces that they somehow tie around their own necks. How do it work?

I mean, I don’t want to get all persnickety on a fantasy movie. I like science fiction. The disbelief is entirely able to be suspended. If they’re going to make a live-action movie, they can’t give the dogs hands with thumbs. Fine. I’m even willing to grant them the idea that somehow intelligent dogs can manage to invent all this hardware. But for me to do that, the prop designer could at least make the effort to create objects that you could imagine are operated by dogs. The Simon-game communicator has a couple big buttons on the top for Hubble to put his paw on at significant moments, and that’s okay. But how did he carry it out of the spaceship? It’s a big flat smooth chunk of plastic. He can’t grip it with his teeth. Plus, Owen is the one who repairs it — Hubble can’t, because it’s full of little wires and fiddly bits of circuitry, and Hubble, let’s face it, has dog hands. How could dogs invent that in the first place?

I don’t want to sit in the theater and puzzle over this. I want to be enchanted. But it’s hard to get swept away by a movie when they can’t bother to think their premise through to Step B.

Here’s some more dialogue. Owen explains to Hubble that things are different here on Earth: “Dogs here are called man’s best friend.” Hubble: “Friends? Why do dogs need friends?” Owen: “… Everyone needs friends.”

In the script breakdown, that scene says HEART MOMENT. Check.

Hubble announces to the dogs that they’ve failed in their mission. The dogs are disappointed. The dogs say they can do better. The dogs beg Hubble to teach them how to be more dignified.

The dogs, in short, don’t have individual characterizations. In fact, each one has a personality that’s exactly the width of one accent. Barbara Ann, the poodle, has a Southern accent and a vaguely-defined diva streak. Nelly the chihuahua shivers a lot. (A spoiled poodle! A nervous chihuahua! How do they think up this stuff?) Shep is the big old hound dog. And Wilson, I’m sad to say, is the jive-talking black-guy dog.

Even worse, their emotions are always in sync. They respond exactly the same way to every stimulus, each in a different voice. Throughout the movie, I kept thinking, how hard would it be for the “nervous” dog to be afraid of something, and for that to cause conflict? How much creativity would it take to put in the script that the “spoiled” dog doesn’t want to bow down to the Greater Dane? Never happened.

What does happen, though, is fart gags. The first one comes when Hubble is trying to teach the dogs to meditate. He tells them to relax and let go… and Shep spurts out a big noisy fart. This moment gets a big laugh from the kids in the audience. (It does not get a big laugh from Ed, who’s getting more and more restless next to me.) The kids in the audience aren’t talking or messing around much; they’re all paying attention to the movie… but there’s only four real laughs from the crowd the whole time. Three of them are for Shep’s farts. The fourth one is for Wilson jumping off a diving board into a pool. It’s that kind of movie.

Oh, and there’s laughing gas in the garage, let’s get to that. There’s a scene at this point with Owen and Hubble in the garage, where Owen is trying to fix Hubble’s communicator. Owen’s dad walks through and chats with his son. On the way out, Dad reaches down and picks up a little cannister of something. “Oops!” he says. “I’d better move this out of the way.” He puts it on a shelf. “If that leaked out, it would make us all goofy!” Then he walks away.

There’s something refreshingly innocent about that kind of paint-by-numbers foreshadowing, isn’t there? They don’t say what the gas is. They don’t show us the label or give us any context for it. There’s just a cannister of comedy lying around in the garage, and someone thoughtfully left it on the floor so Dad could walk through and foreshadow it.

Apparently the target audience for this movie is morons.

I don’t have a problem with that, actually. So it’s a movie for morons. At least it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is. Morons need movies too.

Anyway, to no one’s surprise, the gas cannister gets knocked over, and it makes all the dogs “goofy” just in time for the Greater Dane to arrive. This happens — also to no one’s surprise — on the day that Owen’s parents are holding an open house. The “goofy” dogs knock everything over and generally disrupt the open house reception. Then the Greater Dane arrives on the scene, and the dogs struggle to act dignified.

The entire crowd of adults at the open house all have to stand around and watch while the dogs go through this long complicated scene. Remarkably, none of the people there make any attempt to shoo the dogs away, or call Animal Control, or talk or move or anything. They just wait around until the scene is over. This movie was apparently made by people who have been in Hollywood so long that they’ve forgotten the difference between extras and humans.

The Greater Dane isn’t pleased, so she orders that all dogs be removed from Earth and returned to Sirius for retraining. Owen blinks his big dark eyes and makes a speech about how important dogs are. “Some dogs even work with police and fire-fighters! Some dogs guide people who can’t see. You should be proud of them. Don’t you SEE that? People love dogs… because people and dogs love each other.” The music swells again. The music keeps getting overexcited, like important stuff is happening. The music is enjoying this movie a lot more than I am.

I know better. It’s too early for this to be the resolution. According to the Hollywood handbook, there has to be a crisis point where everything is so bad that it doesn’t look like it’s possible for there to be a happy ending. Right on cue, the Greater Dane orders the global recall, and the neighborhood dogs are all spirited away. Then we have to look at all the dog owners being sad and lonely.

So here comes the ending, delivered as usual with not a moment of suspense: Hubble on the spaceship realizing for the first time that he really belongs with Owen. More big speeches about how people and dogs live side by side. Owen looking out a car window. Sad oboe music. Owen running to the crash site shouting, “The dogs! The dogs!” A smattering of slow-motion. Orchestra cue indicating a long-hoped-for triumph, punctuated with cymbal crashes.

All the neighborhood dog owners follow Owen to the crash site. It must be getting close to the end of the movie, because the characters are starting to move in a herd. Everyone stands around as another scout ship crashes… and the neighborhood dogs are returned to their grateful owners.

But there’s one dog who hasn’t emerged from the crash… and Owen wonders… is it possible… that he’ll never see his best friend ever again?

Like I said, it’s for morons. I actually have no qualms about telling you the end of the movie like this because, honestly, there’s nothing here that you couldn’t have figured out by yourself.

I will, in fact, share with you the very last shot of the movie, because there are no secrets between us. It’s the obligatory young boy shouting YES! shot, with Owen thrusting his hand in the air. In slow motion. Shouting YES. Music and everything. You’d love it; I wish you were there to see it.

Unfortunately, you weren’t there, and Ed was. You can imagine how I felt as the house lights went up and I had to look him in the face. Luckily, the guy loves me like crazy, so all he said about it was, “That was terrible.” I agreed, and we moved on.

The problem is, actually, that it wasn’t terrible. It would have benefitted from some terribleness; that would have perked it up a bit. What it was, in fact, was prefab Talking Dog Movie product. The kid was appealing. The dog was cute. The computer effects were seamless. It was lit well. There’s nothing bad or offensive about it, but there’s nothing good about it, either.

journalgoodboy12Good Boy is a perfectly frictionless surface. It slides through your brain so effortlessly that it doesn’t leave any impression at all. If I hadn’t been taking notes at the time, I wouldn’t be able to remember it well enough to write about it now.

So I was right when I told Ed that it wouldn’t be as bad as Buddy, if that’s a compliment. But at least Buddy was memorable; we’re still making jokes about it six years later. There’s some pleasure to be had in watching a scorchingly bad movie like Buddy, because you can sit there and make fun of it.

There’s no pleasure involved in watching Good Boy. There’s just TDM.

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Written by Danny Horn

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