So, Cats & Dogs 3: Paws Unite! You've just got to love the stubborn optimism of that exclamation point, by the way. Like we'll be convinced that it's a bubbly, fun bit of high-energy nonsense if our brain reflexively rises up in volume as we read it Also, I cannot shake the feeling that it should be Paws United, with a past participle, and either way, it's a kind of odd bit of non-wordplay. It has the cadence of a pun, or at least a reference; but it doesn't really mean anything. The word "paws" doesn't show up in the film's dialogue in such a way that it suggests any form of unity.

Anyway, though, here we are. Cats & Dogs 3: Paws Unite! has somehow been willed into existence, 10 years after Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, and a whopping 19 years after Cats & Dogs. How in the literal hell we got a Before Trilogy span out of a franchise about how wouldn't it be funny if the phrase "fighting like cats and dogs" referred to fighting like in an action movie, I cannot start to say and do not care to speculate. Some brand names are so powerful and strong that they transcend the years and remain fresh and vital to every new generation of children, who discover them as hidden gems from the past; may God strike me down dead right now if Cats & Dogs is one of those brand names.

Anyway, ten years after The Revenge of Kitty Galore, the events of that film have led to a decade of detente between cats and dogs. I imagine. There's a lot of talk about "for the last ten years", and I don't know what else it would be in reference to, and it is with a joyful song in my heart that I proclaim that my memories of The Revenge of Kitty Galore are not strong. At any rate, cats and dogs are now working to preserve the peace through an international intelligence organisation called Furry Animals Rivalry Termination. "FART!" giddily shrieks our lead cat, Gwen (Melissa Rauch), during the expository voiceover, at which she is curtly informed that no, that's not what we call it, by the straitlaced dog Roger (Max Greenfield), but of course that is what we call it, and even Roger forgets that he was annoyed at first. And what we learn from FART, coming so very early in the movie, is that Paws Unite is unbelievably fond of scatological jokes. I mean, yes, I get it: children's media. But there are so many here. The evil organisation that FART must stop is called POOP - one of the Ps is for Pets, but I am afraid I was too busy glaring at my television screen to think fast enough to jot down the rest. And not just scatology! There's also a joke within the first five minutes, where the mother (Kristen Robek) of one of our two main humans, junior high tennis whiz Maz (Callum Seagram Airlie), earnestly notes that she uses an app to track how much time he spends masturbating. I profoundly wish I could say this was subtext, or a double-entendre, and I suppose it technically is, in that what she actually says is that she tracks the changes in his heart rate when he's in the bathroom, at which he takes flustered umbrage. So maybe it's just that he shits so hard it causes heart palpitations, which to be fair, would be extremely in-character for this film.

Anyway, when Paws United isn't engaged in the most soul-damaging humor a children's movie can conceivably wallow in, it's content to delight us with scenes of real animals whose CGI mouths turn into the hideous devouring maws of some eldritch forgotten god, in an attempt to make it look like they're speaking. This is merely unpleasant with the dogs, but the cats are something truly mesmerising: Gwen's mouth stretches in hideously over-articulated O shapes even when she is not producing anything remotely like an O sound, so not only does it look like her face is melting in defiance of the laws of physics and God, she looks like she's in a badly-dubbed Godzilla movie on top of it. The bar for viscerally revolting CGI cat monsters is high enough right now that Paws United doesn't really threaten to pass over it, but it's still pretty horrifying, enough to make the jaw-droppingly bad fake paws used throughout the film - they're literally just, like, dowel rods covered in fur wiggled back and forth from off-camera - feel cozy and charming.

There is a story behind all of this; astonishingly, it is bad. On the hand, a deranged cockatoo named Pablo (George Lopez), having languished in a pet store for years while puppies and kitten get sold by the dozens, has concocted a scheme with the tegu lizard Zeek (Paul Dobson) to hack into the cell phones of the entire world and release a signal that will make cats and dogs fight each other again, like they did up until 10 years ago. Somehow, this is meant to turn people against cats and dogs, into the arms of other fluffy, cuddly pets. Like giant-ass fucking lizards, apparently. Also, nobody who is offended by having a pet with a short temper and generally sociopathic mien would have become a cat owner in the first place. But anyway, FART (tee hee hee!) catches wind of this scheme and sends Roger and Gwen in to investigate, even though they're just analysts. So, you know, a direct, one-to-one rip-off of the Melissa McCarthy movie Spy. Gwen has been itching for a chance to work in the field, but Roger is considerably more nervous. Will this mission prove to him that he can be strong and brave? I cannot imagine why you would feel the need to ask.

On the other hand, Gwen's human, Zoe (Sarah Giles) is feeling real low, because her sad sack hippie dad (John Murphy) can't write a new hit song, and so they're about to be thrown out of their apartment. Max, meanwhile, perhaps driven to the fringes of madness in the knowledge that his mother keeps a diary of his orgasms, is tired of being the region's best 12-to-14-year-old tennis player, and has silently decided to protest by throwing his career away. These highly relatable problems have both kids in a funk, and while Gwen and Roger don't have any clue what's actually going on, they correctly intuit that the problem is that the humans are just spending too much gosh-darn time on their phones, and if they can only be trapped in an elevator with each other, and not with their devices, surely the spark of human contact will make them both feel better. So that's how the talking animal spy movie does double-duty as a junior high romcom that's a furious screed about the evils of too much screentime. Seriously, once you catch on that this Paws Unite's main theme, a hatred and mistrust of smart phones is everywhere in the film. I detest my smart phone with every fiber of my being, and even I thought it was shockingly technophobic and reactionary.

That leaves us with the usual gamut of terrible pop culture references (including a persistent parody of Iron Man, though that's at least a property children still care about) "hello, fellow kids"-style attempts to do jokes about Snapchat, which sits uneasily with the "phones are the devil's work" messaging, and one actually solid running gag about how fish don't count as "real" pets, and I will not soon forgiving myself for laughing at it. Twice. The voice acting of the animals consistently errs on the side of loud and monotonous, like none of the actors were quite sure this made sense, so they compensated by pouring some kind of shrill, panicky "energy" into it. And of course the execution of the talking, personable animals is hideous, a full quarter of a damn century since Babe came out and looked better than this in every single detail.

The TL;DR version of all of the above: this is a movie that cares so little about getting anything right that it includes a news broadcast declaring, in very large letters, that we are watching footage from "Buenas Aires". Enjoy, everybody!