It's not the cat's meow: In fact, this family adventure-fantasy is a dog. Lead-footed direction by neophyte Lawrence Guterman — whose only previous directing credit is "additional sequences" in the computer-animated ANTZ — lays waste to a brilliant notion: that there's a secret, high-tech battle of wits and espionage between our guardian dogs and would-be despotic cats. Yes! We've suspected it all along! For very young, uncritical children, this might be a passable time-killer — the talking animals are undeniably cute. But don't expect much appreciation from second-graders on up. The dog star is Lou (voice of Tobey Maguire), a beagle pup with a thirst for adventure. When the bloodhound guarding the family of maverick inventor Prof. Brody (Jeff Goldblum) is "catnapped," backup agent Butch (voice of Alec Baldwin) sees deep doo-doo ahead. Brody is developing a vaccine to cure human allergies to dogs — and rogue feline Mr. Tinkles (voice of Sean Hayes) will stop at nothing to stop him. To ensure the unwitting Brodys adequate canine protection, Butch and the commanders at his SHIELD-like headquarters install a cadre of Doberman Pinscher pups at the farm where Mrs. Brody (Elizabeth Perkins) goes to find a new dog for her son, Scott (Alexander Pollock). But there's a mix-up, and the clueless Lou goes home with the Brodys instead. Stuck with the overeager youngster, Butch tries to make the best of the situation, relying on the help of surveillance agent-dog Peek (voice of Joe Pantoliano) and field agent-dog Sam (voice of Michael Clarke Duncan) — a sheepdog of such monumental ineptitude that it erodes one of the movie's main points: That young Lou must undergo a baptism of fire and become a top dog. This inconsistency of tone and internal logic plagues the film throughout. Worse, its intriguing premise gets diluted by go-nowhere subplots involving the boy and his dog and the boy and his dad. On the positive side, Baldwin brings a convincingly gruff world-weariness to Butch, and Perkins is a believable mom. Both the opening sequence — involving a sapling and a catapulted cat — and a bit involving a cute lil' kitten that's actually an assassin and explosives expert called "The Russian" are quite funny in, respectively, a slapsticky and satiric way. But the perfunctory plotting, clunky staging, and Hayes's decision to play Mr. Tinkles for camp rather than menace help condemn this mutt to the doghouse.
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