We’ve all mutually agreed that the talking pet movie has pretty much run its course, right? The idea is primarily a relic of the time when the amazing wizardry of ADR voice over was a cheap and effective way to lend personality to footage of animals doing animal things, and attempts to update the formula to the age of computer-generated spectacle has largely forced this genre into the uncanny valley, complete with animated mouths that approximate human expression on distinctly inhuman faces. And the trend has largely been supplanted by other forms of kid-friendly entertainment; the idea that your pet dog might be able to talk is just too benign in a landscape that is rife with realistically rendered aliens and superheroes that stoke the imagination in much more creative ways. And yet, here we are with Show Dogs, a film that feels about fifteen years too late both in its place in popular culture and in the visual execution of its premise.
Show Dogs follows a Rottweiler named Max (voiced by Ludacris), an NYPD police dog who works solo because he apparently cannot work well with a partner. This is ostensibly a universe where dogs are still treated like pets and are unable to communicate verbally with humans, so don’t ask me how a police dog is able to get a place on the force as a singular agent. While tracking a kidnapped baby panda, he runs into human FBI agent Frank (Will Arnett, giving this movie way more effort than it deserves), causing the two to butt heads over jurisdiction as the kidnappers get away with the little bear. They track the panda to a dog show in Las Vegas, so Frank and Max must put their differences aside and enter the dog show undercover to catch those responsible for the kidnapping.
At its core, Show Dogs is a competent enough kids’ buddy cop flick, populated by a cast of reasonably decent supporting voiceover performances by Stanley Tucci, Alan Cumming, Gabriel Iglesias, RuPaul, and Shaquille O’Neal. Natasha Lyonne even slums it in an entirely thankless supporting turn, but hey, I’m glad to see her getting the work. (Seriously, I hope every single cast member got paid handsomely because this is a career low for all of them.) But the cast can’t really save the film from its bizarre and inconsistent world, wherein dogs are variously treated as incomprehensible pets but have enough autonomy to book zipline rides or enough demonstrable intelligence to persistently change radio stations or engage the controls of a plane. The plot itself and the character work is consistent and coherent, but the machinations of the world this plot takes place in are barely thought through, especially when the rule that the humans and dogs cannot understand one another is bent far enough that it might as well have just been outright broken.
Here’s the thing, though. While this is intended to be an enjoyable family experience, it functions so much better as a film to bring your inebriated friends to laugh at, almost entirely due to the digitally rendered dogs that jerkily move like robotic toys and hang out right at the bottom of the uncanny valley with their unnatural facial contortions. (Shout out to the kid at my screening who started crying every time the baby panda showed up on screen. You’ve got the right idea, little buddy.) This horror is especially noticeable when the film transitions into action scenes, where not only do you see Max et al perform physics-defying feats of animal acrobatics with unnatural bodily contortions, but time slows way down to show off every excruciatingly cringe-worthy detail of the animation. This is only further complemented by some absolutely bizarre comic beats that play simultaneously cutesy and adult, such as a persistent character beat where a female pigeon has the hots for Max or an extended sequence where Frank caresses Max’s testicles to prepare him for a competition inspection.
These totally jarring moments come to a head when Max, during said competition inspection, imagines himself in his happy place. Suddenly we’re treated to American flags and rainbows as the backdrop for a riff on Dirty Dancing where Max and Frank ballroom dance to "Time Of My Life" and even do the famous lift from the film. If the thought of Will Arnett romantically dancing with a dog that moves in ways no dog should ever move seems hilariously unsettling, then grabbing a few drinks with some friends for a vicious evisceration of Show Dogs would make for a fun evening. But if you have kids, maybe it’s best to leave them home. They don’t need the nightmares.