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Review: 'Cats & Dogs' a tired animal act

By Paul Tatara
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- "Cats & Dogs" is a shrieking blitzkrieg of flash and movement in which household pets comically square off against each other in a high-tech turf war. Though its furry cast members are sometimes cute, the movie systematically converts "Babe's" tender, talking-animals appeal into just another soulless gadget-fest.

Think "Tomb Raider" on four legs. If you dare.

Unlike "Dr. Dolittle 2" (last month's talking-animal picture), the focus here is on digital effects rather than sweetly detailed characters, with a lot of big-name performers supplying voices to the battling creatures.

Although the humans in the cast are secondary participants, Jeff Goldblum "stars" as Professor Brody, the typical Goldblum scientist who goes bug-eyed when he breathlessly reels off theories to people who have no idea what he's talking about. The good professor works in his suburban home laboratory, trying to perfect a vaccine for folks who are allergic to dogs. Since he uses himself as a guinea pig, he's often covered in unsightly hives and attached to monitors. He's also got a supportive, long-suffering wife (Elizabeth Perkins), and a son, Scott (Alexander Pollock).

Movie trailer for 'Cats & Dogs'

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Enjoyably silly ... for awhile

The story opens with the family's beloved dog being kidnapped by a team of crafty cats. Mom quickly adopts a beagle that she names Lou (voiced by Tobey Maguire) to take the missing pet's place.

Lou, a happy-go-lucky type, is still a puppy, so he's ill equipped to perform the duties that are suddenly placed upon him by a local shepherd named Butch (Alec Baldwin). Butch, it turns out, is an operative for a top-secret organization of dogs that's wrestling with cats for control of the domesticated animal kingdom.

Butch explains that if Brody's vaccine puts an end to dog allergies, cats will become a minority population. The Feline Liberation Front, lead by the suave, neo-fascist Mr. Tinkles ("Will and Grace's" Sean Hayes), aims to destroy Brody's research before former allergy sufferers become dog owners. Since Lou lives with Brody, he has to act as an agent to stop the cats.

That sounds enjoyably silly enough, and it is for a little while. Baldwin, in particular, gets the most out of his character ... which is more than you can say for his work in "Pearl Harbor." Butch is a hardened veteran of the dog-and-cat conflict, and he looks down on playful, ineffective Lou. It's a lot of fun the first time Butch switches on a secret computer system and contacts his agents around the neighborhood.

cats and dogs
Furry cast members square off against each other in "Cats & Dogs"  

But you better be really, really amused by the sight of cats and dogs operating state-of-the-art spy equipment and fighting each other like commandos from a World War II movie. You'll be getting it virtually non-stop for the rest of the picture, and the variations often aren't as clever as they're intended to be. Not even voice work by such luminaries as Susan Sarandon, Joe Pantoliano, Charlton Heston, John Lovitz, and Michael Clarke Duncan can save the day. It just gets tiresome.

A poor blend

Director Lawrence Guterman attempts to blend footage of real animals with robots and CGI look-alikes, but it doesn't come off very well. The herky-jerky movement of the digital creations adds an overwhelming degree of artificiality. Gravity takes a sudden holiday while the characters bounce around like they're dangling from invisible rubber bands.

Meanwhile, the cross cutting between robots and real animals works about as well as an attempt to cross-breed Chihuahuas and Irish setters. You're seldom absorbed in the action the way you are when you watch a masterful, fully digitized feature such as "Toy Story" or "A Bug's Life."

There's an old showbiz adage that says "never appear on stage with an animal." Until the technology is perfected, CGI artists would be wise to heed that advice. Whenever Guterman cuts to a real beagle or Pomeranian, you desperately lock onto it for a much-needed dose of warm blood. Then it's back to the gadgets, and, yes, there's a moment when a karate-kicking cat is photographed in "bullet time," the spinning freeze-frame effect that was introduced in "The Matrix." This has become the lazy movie satirist's sight gag of choice. The mere use of it is somehow supposed to throw you into a fit of laughter, never mind that it's not funny.

"Cats & Dogs" is bound to make a pile of dough, because you feel like you've been fed through a food processor by the time its over. Save your child's spirit and rent "Lady and the Tramp" instead.

"Cats & Dogs," rated PG, is violent, but in an extremely cartoonish way. The combatants kick and punch each other, and they fire an assortment of crazy weapons. One cat coughs up a metal "fur ball" that explodes and sends darts flying around a living room. That's why it says "no pets" on the lease.

• Cats and Dogs

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