"SHOW DOGS" — 1½ stars — Will Arnett, Natasha Lyonne, voices of Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Shaquille O'Neal, Alan Cumming, Stanley Tucci; PG (suggestive and rude humor, language and some action); in general release
Imagine "Miss Congeniality" with the Miss United States pageant swapped for a championship dog show in Vegas and Sandra Bullock replaced by a talking Rottweiler. That's the essence of "Show Dogs," and it tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the movie.
Raja Gosnell's action-comedy follows the adventures of Max (voiced by Chris "Ludacris" Bridges), a Rottweiler police dog working for the NYPD. When a valuable panda cub is snatched during a botched sting operation at the beginning of the movie, Max has to infiltrate a prestigious dog show in Las Vegas in order to catch the criminals.
To succeed, Max has to work in tandem with Frank (Will Arnett), the undercover FBI agent he tangled with during the film's opening sequence. In the world of "Show Dogs," both humans and dogs talk, but only to each other.
In Vegas, we enter the same show dog culture Christopher Guest lampooned in 2000's "Best in Show." For the canine cast, we meet Philippe (Stanley Tucci), the Belgian ex-champion Max enlists to show him the ropes, Daisy (Jordin Sparks), a female contender and potential love interest for Max, Dante (Alan Cumming), a vicious and diminutive diva, and Karma (Shaquille O'Neal), a more philosophical competitor.
On the human side, Frank meets Mattie (Natasha Lyonne), the FBI liaison who also happens to be Daisy's handler, and Senor Gabriel (Omar Chaparro), the uppity cutthroat competitor who handles Dante.
Where past cop-dog buddy comedies such as "Turner and Hooch" (which the film frequently references) were built around the relationship between the two leads, "Show Dogs" follows Frank and Max as they stubbornly pursue their own independent investigations and learn to work together (and of course, to respect the dog competition institution).
There's really not much under the surface here, and audience interest in "Show Dogs" will likely hinge on its appreciation for canines CGI-enhanced to look like they're talking. It's one thing in a 30-second TV commercial, it's another stretched over the course of a full-length feature.
Unfortunately, Gosnell and Co. have invested most of the film's comic capital in the talking dog concept, and there is little else in the movie that seems to be looking for laughs (and spends an inordinate amount of time focused on the awkwardness of doggie private parts).
Much of "Show Dogs" is focused on its crime investigation story, which feels a little too far over the heads of its target audience. (Speaking of which, my 4-year-old guest/canary in the coal mine lost interest by the start of the third act and spent the remainder of the film running wind sprints around the theater.)
It's tempting to consider what a movie like this would have looked like if it had been fully animated — either in traditional cell animation or with a full-on Pixar CGI rendering. The story concept is reasonable enough, but by making it a live-action film, "Show Dogs" just puts way too much emphasis on the gimmick of the talking dogs. Without a clever script to back it up, the result feels like a much better fit for a slow day on Netflix than a full-price ticket to the theater.
"Show Dogs" is rated PG for suggestive and rude humor, language and some action; running time: 82 minutes.