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Published: Friday, 10/10/2003

Movie review: Good Boy! ***

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

As a young lad in a Red Sox cap (go Sox! ... sorry), I dreamed of being a zoologist or an oceanographer and talking to animals and wet, slimy, scaly things all day. Now that I am a fully grown adult male and write about movies for a living, I can tell you that, seriously, all you need to know about animals, Animal Planet or no Animal Planet, is that animals talk, preferably in a comic voice.

Specifically, dogs talk a lot. You can't shut them up. I know this because a dog told me to write this review and do a bunch of other scarier things, but all I have time for is this review of Good Boy!, the latest talking animal movie from Hollywood in a long tradition of talking animal movies that stretch, in recent years alone, from Babe to Cats & Dogs to Snow Dogs to Dr. Dolittle to the collected works of that Sasquatch-esque humanoid actor called Robin Williams.

How does Good Boy! build on the often told story of a lonely boy and his talking dog from another planet? With an exclamation point in its title, and more charm than parents might expect - but not much more. For every shot of lonely Owen (Liam Aiken) getting a tongue shower from his Benji impersonator Hubble, there are three flatulence gags, as if director John Hoffman knew he must crack the glass on the Emergency Kiddie Movie Kit for a few cheap laughs. Translation: It's strictly for the 10-and-under set, but mom and dad won't be calculating next year's tax return in their head. (Although, if you ask me, the perfect family film at the moment is The School of Rock - don't let that misplaced PG-13 rating scare you.)

I've seen Good Boy! coming for years. If the ugly E.T. and lonely Elliot begat a lonely Hawaiian girl and her alien masquerading as a dog in Lilo & Stitch, which begat a feral fight for world dominance (and the heart of a lonely boy) in Cats & Dogs, then it was inevitable we'd get an alien dog tugging at the heartstrings of a lonely boy while positioning for world domination. Hubble (voiced by Matthew Broderick) is actually Canid 3942. He's a middle-management brown noser sent from dog star Sirius to visit Earth; here it is rumored a long-lost canine mission went horribly wrong. Dogs meant to conquer us and ended up as pets.

There's nothing in that as clever as the parachuting ninja cats of Cats & Dogs, but it's not bad. Hoffman doesn't really establish the rules or have enough fun with what space dogs can and can't do, and I would have liked to learn more about their planet. Instead, he taps (translation: he exploits) a primal chord with pet owners: the possibility of losing a pet.

Hubble confides in Owen. He's liking this life of an Earth dog - humans serve dogs (think about it) - but his leader, The Greater Dane (voiced by Vanessa Redgrave), is arriving soon and if Hubble can't convince her that dogs rule Earth, all canines will be recalled to Sirius.

Despite its shamelessness, Good Boy! never gets overly sentimental and Owen isn't a bore. The film has a coziness for younger children and a surprising melancholy even as it descends into routine slapstick. You want to know about the talking dogs. They look good. Jim Henson Pictures produced and, oddly, stuck to real dogs and digitally altered mouths.

Brittany Murphy is a nervous Italian greyhound. You kind of see her behind the poochy facade. Delta Burke does a poodle, but I was thinking Melissa Rivers. And you know, Carl Reiner really does look like a Burmese Mountain Dog. These pets show a subtle humanity.

Now comes the awkward part where I break the news to cat people: You have a cat from outer space movie already. So put your hands down. It's a 1978 Disney feature called, well, The Cat From Outer Space. Besides telling the story of a lonely child and a magical pet, you get the truly mystical experience of Sandy Duncan and Roddy McDowall in the same film.



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