Director: Raja Gosnell
Writers: Max Botkin & Marc Hyman
Composer: Heitor Pereira
Starring: Will Arnett, Natasha Lyonne, Stanley Tucci, Ludacris
Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Family
What should have been a light-hearted canine caper has instead been one of the most controversial movies of 2018. For those unaware of this film’s past, the uproar is about the original message Show Dogs unintentionally sent to children.
Max, a Rottweiler, is the hero of the film; a police dog that likes to work solo, and definitely doesn’t like partnering up or doing those typical ‘pet dog’ things like being patted. That is until his job requires him to go undercover as a show dog, and unfortunately for him, conformation competitions require his genitals to be inspected and touched by the judges. Max’s doggy mentor advises him to “go to a happy place” when this occurs, and the film shows this–during the final, climatic trial, Max mentally distances himself while a human touches his privates, to great success. It’s his character flaw that he successfully overcomes.
Yeah… This is a kids’ film! I hope you can see the problem here–it promotes sexual grooming! It’s baffling to think that despite films requiring hundreds of people involved in their creation, not a single person thought to bring up the issue. It released in the USA to negative reviews amongst parents and critics alike. Word spread, and where I live in Australia, parents, with the help of the Australian Christian Lobby petitioned to have the film pulled from cinema chains before Show Dogs was even released.
Hearing the criticisms, the studio had no choice but to retract the movie and rerelease a new edit, this time without the genital touching scenes. Though some reports I’ve read from the USA state that there are still some controversial sequences. In Australia, Show Dogs was held off from release until the next school holiday period. It has now finally arrived from across the Pacific, and I can’t tell whether I’m excited about it or not. I love dogs and films about dogs (or anything dog related), but this sub-genre is renowned for typically aiming for the dollar store bins. Yet Isle of Dogs demonstrated that talking canine films could be done well. So how much is Show Dogs’ negative press attributed to its past controversy? Or is it simply a bad film, doggy genitalia groping or not?
The film that I am reviewing is the one that was released in Australia, July 5th, 2018. I cannot comment on whether this version is different to the edited film that was re-released in the States a week after it was pulled by the studio.
Violence/Scary Images: A Rottweiler has “anger issues,” frequently intimidating others and bites people in a comical fashion (i.e. sometimes on the bottom) throughout the film. A tiger mauls a person, though the actual act is done off-screen. They are shown later with bloodied scratches across their face. Several characters are almost chopped up by an airplane propeller. Gun violence–firing weapons but no hits. Fistfights between criminals and police officials.
Language/Crude Humor: H*ll and d*mn are said, and God’s name is used in vain. There’s an infrequent use of questionable dialogue, such as “grow some balls”, “stupid”, “B.S.”, “flip this bird” and some other puns, with one involving a “Weiner dog”. “Son of a…” is cut off. There are a few poop and fart jokes. A dog is seen scooting across the ground.
Drug/Alcohol References: There is a party scene where adults hold alcoholic-looking drinks. A dog jokes about clearing out the mini bar. One character requests a bag of catnip as payment.
Sexual Content: A male dog is given a bikini wax without prior knowledge of what was happening. There is some flirting between two dogs. A male dog is propositioned by a female dog; the owner suggests that the two should have puppies together.
Spiritual Content: There’s a Komondor in the film by the name of “Karma.” It frequently says zen-like sayings.
Other Negative Content: Several animals are kidnapped, as the film focuses on the black market animal trade.
Positive Content: The main character learns to treat others with respect, along with the importance of teamwork.
Let’s address the big issue first, as that will determine whether you’re even going to entertain the idea of seeing this movie. Does this film still contain an underlying message of sexual compliance? Thankfully, no! The depiction and all discussion revolving around the unwanted touching of genitalia has been edited out of the film.
Two light references to the nether regions still remain. In one scene, Max, the Rottweiler, is surprised by a sudden bikini wax done during a grooming session. In another moment, towards the end of the film, Frank (Will Arnett) worries Max will bite him when he needs to grab his upper thighs in order to hoist him through a window. The latter gag feels under-established now that Max’s animosity about being touched has been removed. Yet both instances are nothing more than a quick joke; they’re not sexualized situations and kids won’t misconstrue it as such. Show Dogs no longer subliminally sends the message that sexual assault is perfectly normal.
While the film is no longer controversial, Show Dogs is still a chaotic mess from start to finish. This movie has a lot of problems, most of them related to an overly-complicated plot. This is obvious within the first five minutes. In order for the story to work, it merely has to introduce a man and a dog within the police force that haven’t partnered up before, to tackle a case that involves a canine conformation show.
Yet what should be a simple set up is horribly convoluted, as it tries to marry the NYPD’s dog squad with a foiled F.B.I. stake out, before then finding justification as to why both departments need to work together in a completely different location (Las Vegas). The action on screen is so manic within those first few minutes that an animated pigeon literally summarizes for the audience what has occurred thus far. While the contrivances of this plot can be forgiven due to it being a kid’s film, surely there are simpler ways to establish this narrative.
Yet it doesn’t slow down for the second or third act. Poorly paced, Show Dog tries to cram in all the tropes covered in Miss Congeniality minus almost twenty minutes of runtime. There are three pigeons that wish to join the police, a pug that idolizes Max’s “alpha” attitude, a romance with an Australian shepherd, a famous show dog that seeks retribution for being dumped by his owner, the burgeoning friendship between Max and Frank, and then Max’s character journey about trusting others… and this is all in addition to the main action that revolves around a stolen panda. For an hour and a half, there’s just a lot of stuff happening on screen.
It’s a directionless piece that doesn’t know when to find its moments. Sadly, the editors may have had a point when they claimed the genital groping scene was the climax of the story. It would be interesting to compare the two versions and see if the original had the same pacing issues. In its current form, it seems that Max doesn’t have many obstacles.
There are three challenges in the competition he must overcome: bizarre renditions of obedience, agility, and conformation trials. Yet despite his lack of training, Max blasts through each one with ease. The final challenge–a physical inspection performed by the judges is now heavily edited–seems ridiculously simple. It now looks like he’s just having a pat. Coupled with Max’s determination to get as far into the competition as possible in order to save the cutest little baby panda you’ll ever see on screen, it leaves the audience wondering why everything is a big drama when it’s clear that Max can handle it. There’s no hardship to humble Max’s behavior. He wasn’t a likable character from the beginning, and without seeing him struggle, what little personal growth we do witness seems artificial and shallow, as though he’s an alpha male that can now act a little bit nicer towards those he views as inferior.
Miss Congeniality, while not fantastic, is nevertheless a guilty pleasure to watch, mainly because it knew how to build up its plot and where to focus its time. It foreshadowed the upcoming challenges, so the audience understood the difficulty involved and the stakes stacked against the main character. It developed the fellow competitors, so we grew to love them at the same rate as Gracie, the F.B.I. agent.
Show Dogs doesn’t do this. What’s required in the competition comes as a surprise, and the supporting cast seems to pop in and out of the picture at random. The film would have done well to copy the story beats of an underdog sports movie, with rising tension, gripping strategy, and slower pacing during those key trials. It wants to do it–there is a montage (in an almost “even Rocky had a montage, MONTAGE” style)–but if it took what it was trying to parody on board a little more seriously, then I’m certain we’d have seen a bump up in quality.
Unsurprisingly, the best moments in Show Dogs are when the movie consciously slows down to take a breather. Will Arnett has fun in his role, yet despite at times awkwardly straddling both the comedic and straight man part, his interactions with Natasha Lyonne add a much-needed dose of sanity to an otherwise disjointed film.
Though it’s Philippe, an unhinged pampered papillon that steals the show. The mentor figure of the film, his crazed demeanor paired with shots of him lying on his back, cucumber slices over his eyes is hilarious (especially when you take into consideration that it’s a real dog posing in the shots). Though the audience’s attachment to this character is limited, no thanks to poor storytelling. His character journey does come full circle, but we are unable to fully appreciate it, as his backstory feels so rushed, busy and shoehorned in. The simple addition of a flashback sequence would have not only been hilarious but also would have provided some clarity regarding his personal vendetta and the world of a show dog.
While Show Dogs’ narrative storytelling skills are virtually non-existent, at least from a visual standpoint it’s a pleasing film. Real animals stand in as models while their mouths are animated. At a quick glance, the animation seems more cartoonish in style compared to the director’s previous work in Beverly Hills Chihuahua, which feels more restrained in comparison, but it still works and its execution is amusing.
Unfortunately, while the special effects may be strong (with an exception of a CGI tiger that looks weird), the same cannot be said regarding the film’s other technical elements. The film’s editing is choppy, though it’s hard to critique without knowing how much of that is a result of the molestation controversy. When it comes to the film’s sound recording and editing, a lot of poor choices have been made, which could provide an explanation for the film’s larger misgivings.
Show Dogs is one of those talking canine movies where the humans can’t understand what the animals are saying. Unfortunately, this means that the dogs will have conversations with each other at the same time as the humans. It’s ultimately an audible mess. Dialogue is delivered while someone natters in the background. Of course, this happens all the time in real life, but in the film world, it’s generally considered a no-no. This could explain Show Dogs’ inherent ‘busy’ feel; the eyes are already struggling to focus on the action due to the sharp editing to and fro between the humans and dogs, and now the ears have to consciously concentrate on the main conversation happening in the scene as well. It makes Show Dogs mentally exhausting to watch.
The film’s score thankfully captures the tone of the story, though it sadly sounds generic from time to time. The soundtrack is also interspersed with modern day pop songs. While that creative decision can be legitimized by the fact that there are party scenes in the film, the randomness of the selection feels like they were picked more so because they obtained the rights to play them, as opposed to their suitability for the story.
Show Dogs had the potential to provide biting wit on the ridiculousness of the “dog fashion world”, much like Zoolander or the hilarious mockumentary, Best in Show, but sadly what should have been a simple story is told badly. It’s overcomplicated and oddly overly stimulating to the point that even adults need to concentrate heavily in order to follow the plot. While this new edit has redeemed the film’s image issues, it now lacks some key storytelling elements that only a rewrite and reshoot can address.
As a result, it’s hard to recommend this film, as there are simply better choices out there when it comes to entertaining children for two hours. If you prefer an edgier kids’ film, then Peter Rabbit nails the style. For a story with more finesse, then there’s Incredibles 2 or Paddington 2. As such, the only reason to invest in this movie is if your child has an obsession with dogs and will watch anything canine-related. Even then, Show Dogs doesn’t compete with the classics of this odd sub-genre, like the Homeward Bound, Beethoven, and Benji series. This year has already produced some phenomenal dog films, such as Isle of Dogs and Pick of the Litter, the latter of which is a wonderful documentary suitable for children, which also introduces and teaches compassion towards those who are visually impaired.
There is some entertainment value to be found in Show Dogs, though it’s few and far between. It’s a film that ultimately comes across as barely contained chaos–some people like that style. If you do decide to see it, then be sure to keep watching throughout the credits, as there are bloopers and fun behind the scenes footage.