This review is based on the first released cut of the movie Show Dogs, before the hue and cry against the film's implicit instruction to young children that "this is how you behave when strangers want to touch your genitals" led to it being recut in time for its second weekend of release. I lead with this not mostly because I want to be scrupulous in my duties as a critic relating to a film that nobody reading this gives a shit about seeing; nor because I think it's an interesting story on its own merits (like most internet-based moral panics, it's a tendentious reading, though only by a bit - in any case, it's an unpleasant, creepy moment*). Mostly, it's because the scene in question was 100% obviously going to engender this controversy, and it is completely clear that the people who made it cared so little about it that they never for half a second thought that anybody else might care. Like, they literally had no sense of this as a meaning-carrying object, only as a mechanical product, in which a CGI dog has its genitals yanked because genital abuse and CGI animals are a financially proven combination.

In short: we have here a new Raja Gosnell film. Fucking awful talking CGI dogs is kind of his thing: with ten films under his belt to date, Show Dogs is no less than the fourth in this hellbound subgenre, after Scooby-Doo in 2002, Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed in 2004, and Beverly Hills Chihuahua in 2008. The last of these is given the most overt reference withinΒ Show Dogs that can be achieved without incurring the wrath of Disney's especially wrathful lawyers, which raises the incredible, horrifying promise that we might some day be subjected to the Raja Gosnell Cinematic Universe.

Till that happy day rings in the end times, Show Dogs will have to stand on its own four feet (despite a final scene that really wants a sequel, and does so by having a character literally turn to the camera and say "here we go again" in a shot that turns into a freeze-frame, the movie version of a stand-up comic unironically including a bit about airplane food). And oh, how very barely it is able to do so. The film is, very self-consciously, a tribute to '80s copy movies: on the one hand, we have an NYPD officer, Max (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges), who hates everyone and everything. On the other, an FBI agent, Frank (Will Arnett), who hates everyone and everything only slightly less, and is also a bumbling square. Circumstances force them to investigate a smuggling case together, whereupon they bicker and bond. Only in this case, the NYPD officer is a Rottweiler dog, and the smugglers are using a major international dog show in Las Vegas to hide their attempt to sell a baby panda. Or something. The bad guys' plot is mostly nonsensical - smuggling the panda in through New York and then bringing it to Vegas to smuggle it somewhere else.

Also nonsensical: everything else. The film plays by Garfield rules: all animals can communicate with each other, and they can understand what humans are saying, but humans only hear their speech as barks (or whatever else, but it's a dog-heavy movie). But it has been edited, and in many ways blocked, as though Max and Frank are perfectly capable of having full conversations with each other. It's slight and largely unimportant, except that it's so persistent, that the film never stops feeling broken and wrong, on an almost subliminal level. The movie is like a shirt with a scratchy tag: no, it's not actually that big a problem, but it soon becomes the only thing you can pay attention to.

So anyway, notwithstanding the film's profound aesthetic incoherence about the central aspect of its narrative universe, Show Dogs is also dumb and awful and ugly. Max has to pose as a show dog, this is the concept; so he makes a connection with a deranged former champion, a Papillon named Philippe (Stanley Tucci), and this is where virtually all of the film's ostensible comedy springs from. The problem is... everything? The script includes only terrible lines, which somehow become more terrible with Tucci's unconstrained Belgian accent, enough to make even the most cartoonish version of Poirot look like understated - "We cannot polish ze turd, but pahrhaps we can rholl it in gleeter" goes one of the more wretched gags -and even so, Tucci is the only actor who seems to care about this project. Ludacris has exactly one tone that he uses for everything, flat and annoyed and quite audibly detached from the script. Jordin Sparks, as the love interest dog Daisy, is peppy and hyper - she is playing a member of the collie group - and very tiring to listen to, especially since she doesn't seem to have given any real thought to what the individual words of her lines mean. Natasha Lyonne, as the human love interest FBI dog trainer Mattie, mostly just exudes a clear desire not to have to pretend she's in love with Will Arnett, probably because Arnett himself looks wholly miserable, as well as confused about what sort of reactions he's supposed to be giving to the combination of real dog and CGI sitting next to him.

The gags range from the lazy to the inexplicable, most of the latter coming in the form of pop culture references that often aren't even the right reference. There's a bit about how Arnett plays Lego Batman, and that makes sense, even if it's not funny at all. But there's also a scene where a zip-lining tiger shouts, "now this is what I call the life of Pi" or words to that effect, and it makes no sense on many levels: the reference itself, the scene's position in a narrative, how a tiger got onto a zip-line in a universe playing by Garfield rules in the first place. And while that's probably the most apeshit of all the jokes in the film, this kind of thoroughly arbitrary nod to pop culture is actually pretty common throughout Show Dogs.

Furthering widening the gulf of madness: the CGI effects. Sometimes, they're great and photorealistic, basically anytime a dog is just talking. But sometimes, the dogs do... things. Philippe vogues at one point; Max opens doors. There's a dream sequence - the only remotely interesting or enjoyable part of the entire film (assuming it survives the cuts: it is, in fact, the "happy place" Max goes to when he's being fondled), mostly because it is so strange - where Max and Frank dance and Max throws Frank over his head, Dirty Dancing-style. Reminder that Max is the dog, Frank is the human. Anyway, all of these moments are still photorealistic, except that the dogs have to bend their limbs in way that dog limbs don't bend, and it becomes pure, unmitigated terror for a few seconds at a time, as their little paws just go finger-like, or some such thing. It is horrible in ways that beggar verbal description, and while just about everything in Show Dogs is wretched - the story, the humor, the action, the acting, the lack of any sense of shame about all of it - it's those vile little moments when the realistic dogs suddenly become fluid CGI monstrosities that Show Dogs really bottoms out as the very worst kind of crap children's movie, and maybe the nadir of Gosnell's terrible career.




*The absolute most generous possible interpretation is that it's a dog version of "close your eyes and think of England", and the place my head went to was telling an actress that producers are going to grab her breasts, and that's just part of the job.