A suburban family moves to a new neighborhood with their large yet lovable Great Dane, who has a tendency to wreak havoc in his own oblivious way.
The history books will show that among the very best films of our age are a good many that bid to captivate children and adults alike. This golden era for family movies has Pixar as its consistently masterful touchstone. Venture then into the world of family friendly cinema and it is their company you have to keep. In spite of all the talent and money involved, Marmaduke doesn’t bother to compete. If someone ever writes a book on talking dog movies, a footnote on Marmaduke would be generous.
It is a lazy combination of two tired narratives in parallel: the story of a family, transplanted by dad for the sake of his job, facing up to a brand new start; and the story of our hero trying to fit in amongst new friends in a new town. The hero, of course, is a dog. A talking dog. This clearly represents a departure from the comic strip source, but I would be genuinely surprised if this script didn’t exist before our clumsy protagonist was christened Marmaduke.
I speculate that it was greenlit thus:
Producer: So it’s a plain story of family fracture and reconciliation with a comedy doggy bit tagged on?
Writer: Well, I prefer to see it as a comedy dog tale with the bullshit family drama tagged on.
Writer: But the dog bit, this is the clever part, the dog bit, is a half-hearted facsimile of that kind of Mean Girls schtick but with a Great Dane in the Lindsay Lohan role. And instead of high school, it’s set in a dog park!
Producer: Can it be a talking dog?
Producer: Can we call him Marmaduke?
Writer: If it’s a dealmaker?
Producer: I think we have ourselves a movie.
Anyone who objects to this kind of flippant criticism of a ‘family film’ on the basis that it’s just a ‘family film’ is plainly misguided. I’m not subjecting the film to undue scrutiny. It fails solely on its own terms. Children can discern the quality of story-telling, set pieces, plot, character, even jokes, in a way that the makers of Marmaduke cannot imagine. There are films on release right now that engage children, ask more of them and give more to them. Three, maybe four passable bits of slapstick, and a well executed moment of climactic jeopardy are not enough.
And that’s leaving aside the fact that ‘family’ crucially refers to more than one generation. There will hopefully be parents accompanying the imaginary audience of children Marmaduke expects to ensnare. They are offered almost nothing. When a nod to the grown-ups arrives it’s so oddly out of step with the rest of the film, I feel like I might have imagined it. There is the vague insinuation that William H Macey’s dog park owner has confused loyalties between his wife and his dog which are, to tread lightly, less than wholesome. Odd.
The CGI is largely well done. In the most part, there are clearly flesh and bone animals in the film. For some stunts and the group-dog-dance-finale I assume we owe a debt to the magic of technology. If you can suspend disbelief the joins are genuinely hard to see. The major problem with the CGI though, is the talking. If you make the effort of animating the face of a live-action dog, get it right. Marmaduke’s face is manipulated in a way that communicates an unsettling soullessness. And the voices are weirdly disembodied. It ends up looking like he is a bona fide talking dog who couldn’t cut it vocally, and they had Owen Wilson dub the whole thing from just out of shot.
Apart from technical issues and a lack of imagination, the other deficiencies of the film are more than compensated for if you are a dog person. The filmmakers have anticipated that you are, in fact, a dog person. To demonstrate, there’s a short sequence in the film that could be lifted intact and used as an effective if unconventional trailer: The father of the family, Marmaduke’s owner Phil, is introduced to his new ‘office’ – the dog park. Every possible device is employed to frame this image as the most appealing scene in the world ever ever. Shoes off, his stockinged feet brushing through the grass, the California sunshine picks out the technicolour detail of flowers in the lush, green landscape. Lots of dogs of all shapes, sizes and hues bound gently and playfully. We reverse from Phil’s POV to a close up of him surveying this panorama: “New life, here I come!”
Only if you can hear yourself in the line, “you’ve got yourself a beautiful best friend there,” should you seek out this film in the hope of entertainment.
If, by chance, you ever find yourself making a film and want the final frames to leave everyone but the very youngest and dimmest of children feeling patronised, I humbly pass on the following cinematic formula:
Happy family resolution -> fart gag -> dancing dogs. Credits.
Marmaduke is a poor, poor film. The children deserve better. Christopher Mintz-Plasse is quite a talented voice actor.