Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Cats & Dogs: Widescreen Version (2001)
Studio Line: Warner Bros. - Things Are Gonna Get Hairy!

They're cunning. They're stealthy. They're waging a top-secret, ultra-high-tech struggle for global domination right under our noses. They're…Cats & Dogs! Witness this epic "tail" of what happens when an eccentric professor (Jeff Goldblum) makes a discovery that could tip the ago-old balance of pet power. Now, an inexperienced young beagle pup named Lou (voiced by Tobey Maguire) is about to begin the ultimate mission im-paws-ible: to save humanity from a total cat-tastrophe! Featuring the voices of Alec Baldwin, Susan Sarandon, Jon Lovitz, Charlton Heston and Sean Hayes.

Director: Lawrence Guterman
Cast: Jeff Goldblum, Elizabeth Perkins, Alexander Pollock, Miriam Margolyes
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1; subtitles English, French, Spanish; closed-captioned; single sided - double layered; 26 chapters; rated PG; 87 min.; $26.98; 10/16/01.
Supplements: Audio Commentary With Director Lawrence Guterman, Producer Chris DeFaria, Production Designer James Bissell and Actor Sean Hayes; “HBO First Look” Documentary; “Teaching a New Dog New Tricks” Documentary; Storyboard Comparisons; Interactive Trivia Challenge; Theatrical Trailer; Cast and Crew; DVD-ROM Materials.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: A-/A-/B

On the surface, the concept behind Cats & Dogs seemed inspired. The film proposed to show the eternal struggle between the two species, and it appeared to be a “can’t miss” prospect. Millions of folks embrace dogs but not cats, and vice versa, and even those who like both animals almost always have a distinct preference. Personally, I think cats are nice critters, but I strongly favor dogs, even when they do dumb things like bark at The Grinch.

However, Cats & Dogs wasn’t quite what I expected. For one, I thought the filmmakers would skirt the issue of a true victor or hero/villain structure. I figured this would be some sort of battle for the hearts of humans, but instead it takes on a James Bond feeling. At the start of the film, we learn that the war for pet domination has gone on for centuries, but dogs are close to a potential victory. Professor Brody (Jeff Goldblum) has almost perfected a drug that’ll cure all dog-related allergies. With that obstacle out of the way, dog lovers who had to get cats can embrace their true desires, and no one will like felines anymore.

Of course, that theory depends on the idea that only those with dog allergies get cats, which isn’t true, but nonetheless, that’s where the movie goes. The cats - as led by Mr. Tinkles (voice of Sean Hayes) - do their best to stop Brody’s efforts, while a squad of dogs relies on new initiate Lou (Tobey Maguire) to stop them. It’s a high tech battle for supremacy that involves the animals in all sorts of unusual situations.

I was surprised that the film so overtly posited cats as villains. However, I also expected that Budweiser would have there be a tie between Bud and Bud Light in the original Bud Bowl, so what do I know? (I figured they didn’t want one product to seem better than the other.) Despite the cartoonish depictions - Mr. Tinkles is Blofeld’s cat without Blofeld himself - the movie definitely emerges into a fight between good and evil, and the dogs are clearly placed on the side of all that’s right.

Fine with me! However, the movie itself isn’t so successful. For one, I never really bought a lot of the computer animation. The more I see CGI, the less I like it. Though it can be used fairly effectively, much of the time computer elements come across as very artificial and cheesy. See The Mummy Returns and Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas for a few prime examples of poorly rendered CGI.

Cats & Dogs has some good elements, and I have to respect its goals. It places the critters in so many freaky positions that it’d kill Mr. Ed just to think about it; Babe’d probably have a stroke as well if he saw how far these elements had come. Nonetheless, there is a thing as too much ambition, and that’s where C&D goes astray. Though the animals in Dr. Dolittle 2 didn’t attempt as much, the rendering seemed much more natural and believable; there were times that it appeared extremely realistic. These allowed me to suspend disbelief much of the time, something I couldn’t do during C&D.

Facial animation caused the greatest concerns, and that was the biggest difference between the critters of C&D and the more natural beasts of Dolittle. The various expressions in C&D were insanely hyperactive. Like Aki’s hair in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, animal faces seem to be in perpetual motion, and they go far beyond the boundaries of believability. I recognize this is a fantasy movie that goes for a cartoony feel, but this was too much; it became hard to accept the animals as anything other than phony because their faces moved so wildly.

The simple Bond rehash of a plot didn’t help matters. I felt that C&D would have worked better had it stayed more realistic. It was fine to indulge in some fantasy elements; indeed, it was a necessity for this kind of film. However, the whole spy aspect of the tale took it too far, and it made the movie less effective than it might have been if it stayed on a smaller scale.

On the positive side, Hayes does a terrific job as Mr. Tinkles. Actually, since I’m a dog man, it pains me to say this, but the cat scenes were usually very entertaining, while the canine material seemed somewhat dull. Villains are usually more fun, so the filmmakers clearly had more room to goof around with the cats, but I was still surprised to see such a wide disparity between the two sides of the movie.

Hayes helps make the cat portions so entertaining, and the film’s second half moves much more briskly, largely because it provides a greater focus on the cat shenanigans. Hayes’ vocal performance is absolutely superb, as he infuses the mega-villain wannabe with the right sense of arrogance and nastiness while he maintains an excellent feeling of silliness. He allows the film to become very fun at times.

Unfortunately, much of Cats & Dogs seems pedestrian at best. The storyline never really catches fire, and the awkward effects didn’t allow me to lose myself in the action; I always felt very aware that I was watching trickery. Ultimately, Cats & Dogs has some fun moments but it doesn’t qualify as much of a movie.

The DVD

Cats & Dogs appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though not flawless, the picture consistently looked very strong.

Sharpness seemed immaculate. At all times the image appeared very crisp and well defined, as I detected virtually no signs of softness or fuzziness. However, some minor examples of jagged edges and moiré effects occurred on occasion. I discerned no edge enhancement, and print flaws remained modest. The image showed light grain at times, and one spot appeared during an interior scene between Brody and son Scott; I think it was stuck to the camera, not the print itself. In any case, the movie seemed clean as a whole, with only these very minor concerns.

Colors looked terrific, as the movie featured a nicely bright and varied palette. The different tones always came across as very distinct and vivid, and they showed no signs of bleeding, noise of other concerns. Black levels also seemed deep and rich, and shadow detail usually looked appropriately heavy without any excessive opacity, though I thought a couple of low-light sequences appeared slightly too dim. Nonetheless, overall I found Cats & Dogs to provide a very solid and satisfying visual experience.

Also positive was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Cats & Dogs. Since the movie essentially sticks with action-adventure themes, I expected a fairly active mix, and it didn’t disappoint me, though I thought it seemed a little more forward-oriented than I anticipated. The front spectrum showed a nice array of audio, as music displayed solid stereo separation, and effects seemed to be well placed. This localization showed good integration and blending; elements moved efficiently and accurately across the channels, and they appeared to mesh cleanly.

As for surround usage, it stuck with general reinforcement for a substantial portion of the movie, but the rears came to life well when necessary. The action sequences showed solid surround elements. For example, the scene with the Russian stealth cat was a nice little showcase, and a lot of the other battle sequences also displayed good involvement and vividness.

Audio quality appeared fine. Dialogue fit with the action well, and speech sounded natural and distinct throughout the film, with no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Music demonstrated good range, as the score appeared vibrant and bright with positive low-end response. Effects also came across as accurate and dynamic; they lacked distortion or flaws and showed solid bass. Ultimately, Cats & Dogs provided a very solid soundtrack that worked well for the material. After a few years as a desk jockey, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) badly wants to get back on board, so he uses this calamity to wrest back his old spot as the chief

Some DVDs become better known for what they were supposed to include than what actually made the cut, and Cats & Dogs may become a member of that club. Earlier reports indicated the DVD would provide two commentaries: one from the “dogs” and one from the “cats”. Although the disc includes separate cat and dog menu options, the audio commentaries found with each are identical.

However, some vestiges of the original plan remain. When the track starts, we’re told that we’ll hear from the canine point of view; a note that we’ll get the feline perspective quickly follows this remark. My guess is that two different tracks were prepared, but they weren’t sufficiently compelling on their own. As such, they were combined into one piece.

Of course, that’s just my personal theory, but it makes sense given the weird introductions. It’s also supported by the structure of the track. We have four participants: director Lawrence Guterman, producer Chris DeFaria, production designer James Bissell, and actor Sean Hayes. The first three were recorded together, while Hayes sat alone, and his statements were edited into the piece. Not surprisingly, this means that the threesome dominates the commentary; Hayes appears infrequently, though he adds some useful notes about the rigors of voice recording at times.

However, the track would work fine without him, for DeFaria, Guterman and Bissell prove to be a very entertaining group. They cover a myriad of topics, from effects challenges to story changes to working with animals to many other subjects. They make fun of the film to a degree and demonstrate a nice sense of humor about the project. Little of the standard happy talk appears here; while they seem positive about the film, they don’t relate a fawning, overly praise-oriented attitude. Overall, this was a surprisingly terrific track. I came away with much more respect for the film and its creators and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

A few other extras appear on the DVD as well. First up, the disc can be accessed through either a “Cats” menu or a “Dogs” menu. When you insert the platter, it resembles those of the James Bond special editions, except you have to pick cats or dogs. The separate sides include differing menus and also a couple of individual features.

However, I’ll look at those they have in common first and go over the unique ones at the end. We get the ubiquitous HBO First Look special that covers the movie. Hosted by Sean Hayes, this 13-minute and 55-second piece provides the usual mix of movie snippets, shots from the set, and interviews with participants. In regard to the latter, we hear from a large number of folks. Comments appear from actors Hayes, Jeff Goldblum, Elizabeth Perkins, Tobey Maguire, and Susan Sarandon, director Guterman, producers DeFaria and Andrew Lazar, visual effects supervisors Ed Hayes and Bill Westenhofer, animal stunt coordinator Boone Narr, lead animal trainer Mark Harden, animatronics supervisor David Barclay, puppeteer Micha Sisti, and animatronics producer Sally Ray.

Whew - that’s a lot of folks for a show that runs less that 14 minutes! Not surprisingly, the level of detail found here is quite low, as the program rushes through topics quite briskly. The focus remains almost entirely on the technical processes, from voice recording to all of the effects work. Despite its superficiality, I thought the piece wasn’t bad for its genre. I saw a lot of interesting tidbits that may have flown by too quickly, but at least it offered more than just the standard promotional fare. Yes, it did try to sell us on the movie, but it contained a reasonable amount of contest.

Additional notes about the film’s technical side appear in Teaching a New Dog New Tricks. This five-minute and 55-second featurette concentrates solely on the creation and integration of the animals into the movie. As such, we hear from some folks seen in the “First Look”: DeFaria, Guterman, Narr, Jones, Ray, as well as a new person, lead animator Alison Leaf. Essentially, this show simply complements the material found in the “First Look”, as it adds some decent details about the visual effects and the live animals. It remains superficial, but it seems entertaining and moderately informative.

Storyboard Comparisons gives us a glimpse of the scene in which the ninja cats invade the house. It shows the final film in the top right of the screen, while the boards appear in the lower left. I thought the images were too small; they’d be more effective if they were larger. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the two minutes and 40 seconds worth of footage, mainly because the cartoony storyboards were fun to see.

Cast and Crew simply lists some of the participants; no additional information about them can be obtained. In addition to the film’s theatrical trailer, the DVD lists an “Interactive Trivia Challenge”. I’m not sure, but I think this refers to the method used to allow you to switch between the “cat” and “dog” menus. From either main screen, select the colored button on the bar with the scrolling text. (It’s either blue or red, depending on your menu selection.) From there, you answer three questions to show if you’re a dog or a cat. It’s insanely obvious which answer’s which, so much so that it clearly is intended as a joke quiz. I think it was silly of them to bill it as an actual extra, but it does make it easy to switch between “cat” and “dog” menus; just get a question wrong and you’ll be able to take the other species’ quiz.

Menu-specific Easter eggs abound on Cats & Dogs, but they’re easy to find. On the first “Special Features” screen in the “dogs” menu, click on the tube and you’ll get 15 “Concept Sketches” created for the movie. On the second “Special Features” page, pick the canine logo to watch a 52-second highlight reel of some of the dogs’ best moments from the film.

While these were decent, the two pieces found in the “cats” side were much more compelling. From the first “Special Features” page, click on the spiky ball and find 95 seconds of “Mr. Tinkles Screentest Footage”. We observe “audition” reels in which the kitty tries out for flicks like On the Litterfront and Apocalypse Meow. It’s insubstantial but cute.

The second egg also focuses on Mr. Tinkles. Select the feline logo from the second “Special Features” page and you’ll see a funny alternate version of Mr. Tinkles’ videotaped message. Here Hayes goes on about how bad most movies are, and essentially relates that Mr. Tinkles will be the biggest star of the year. He was wrong, but it’s entertaining nonetheless.

Finally, we discover a roster of DVD-ROM materials. Most of these are fairly minor. You can install either cat or dog wallpaper and cat or dog screensavers. The “Original Movie Gallery” includes 19 stills, all of which provide production imagery. There are also links to the Warner Bros. “Special Events” page as well as the movie’s official Website and “WB Kids Online”.

The other two extras are more intriguing. “Your Pet’s Secret Identity” lets you place a picture of either your pooch or your pussy - I mean cat - inside a scene from the movie. No, it won’t allow you to fully import your pet into the movie; instead, you essentially cram his or her face inside a small box that features one of the film’s critters. It’s a semi-cute idea, but the execution seems flawed.

I had problems with the final DVD-ROM extra for different reasons. We get the “Director’s Alternate Ending”. Also discussed during the commentary, this 100-second snippet shows a different conclusion to the film, one that leaves open the door to a sequel even wider. It’s a good piece that might have been better than the existing ending.

So what’s my beef? Something this substantial shouldn’t appear as a DVD-ROM extra. I have no problem with DVD-ROM areas including less significant extras, but an alternate ending is too important to be restricted to a smaller user base.

Cats & Dogs reached a decent audience last summer with its special effects trickery and modestly amusing James Bond spoofery. Parts of the movie entertained me, mostly thanks to a terrific vocal performance by Sean Hayes, but the film as a whole seemed less than scintillating. The DVD offers very strong picture and sound plus a short but reasonably good roster of extras highlighted by a fine audio commentary. Ultimately, Cats & Dogs is a sporadically interesting flick that will likely be a good choice for family viewing.

Viewer Film Ratings: 2.9411 Stars Number of Votes: 34
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