When it comes to film criticism, I tend more toward populism. That isn’t to say that I fail to appreciate truly great cinematic art, but that I’m not a particularly snobbish moviegoer. Basically, my attitude is that aiming a film at a wide audience shouldn’t necessarily mean that it is somehow less-than as a creative endeavor.
But we all have our limits.
Unlike some of my critical peers, I won’t dismiss an animated kids’ movie out of hand. Even if the intended viewership might not be particularly worldly or sophisticated, the film in question might still have something to offer. It might not be great art, but there is value to be found in almost any children’s movie.
But then you see something like “Marmaduke” and are confronted with the reality of that “almost.”
The new Netflix animated offering is one of the laziest, lowest-common-denominator kids’ movies that I have ever encountered outside a convenience store’s VHS bargain bin. The animation is choppy and aesthetically unpleasant, the narrative is nonsensical and incoherent and the tone is all over the place. If the intent was to make a film that allowed four-year-olds to feel intellectually superior to those who made it, then bravo. Well done. If the intent was literally anything else, then we’re looking at a spectacular failure.
My money is on the latter.
The plot – such as it is – goes a little something like this. Marmaduke (Pete Davidson) is a giant Great Dane who is constantly causing trouble for his family, getting into massive scrapes that usually result in some sort of significant destruction of property. Said family – Phil (David Koechner) and Dottie (Julie Nathanson) are the parents, Barbara (Erin Fitzgerald) and Billy (Terri Douglas) are the kids – are reaching the end of their rope with Marmaduke’s well-meaning but inevitably disastrous antics.
It all comes to a head when Marmaduke’s spectacular disruption of Billy’s birthday party. The conversation turns toward obedience school. The plot thickens (as much as it ever does) when a video of the party goes viral, drawing the attention of world-famous dog trainer Guy (Brian Hull), a six-time World Dog Championship winner who has left the game due to having no more challenges. In Marmaduke, he sees just such a challenge.
And so, Guy decides to train Marmaduke to prepare him for the cutthroat world of dog competition – a world currently reigned over by the glossy Zeus (JK Simmons), whose combination of spectacular fur and mental manipulation makes him the dog to beat. Marmaduke’s early reticence gives way to determination as he tries to reach the top of the dog show world.
Of course, this is Marmaduke, so things are going to go sideways. And they do – more than once.
All the while, Marmaduke’s family sees their dog changing and they start to wonder if they might actually prefer having their old dog back. But as Marmaduke ramps up toward a final showdown with his rivals and a chance to show his family just what he’s made of, it all begs the question: What kind of dog does Marmaduke want to be?
I’m on record as saying that all dogs are good dogs – and they are – but not all dog movies are good dog movies. And “Marmaduke” is NOT a good dog movie. It’s not a good dog movie or children’s movie or animated movie. It is not a good ANYTHING movie.
Obviously, I hold different films to different standards. But even if I lower the bar across the board, I can’t figure out any way to get this movie over it. Sure, it’s a movie for kids – young kids – but even by that metric, this is an atrocious offering (though I’m unsure how to distribute blame among the film’s four(!) co-directors). I actively regret having watched it and feel the deepest sympathy for any and all parents who wind up bamboozled into seeing it.
The animation is janky and cheap-looking, all wandering blobs and sharp angles with little rhyme or reason regarding which is which. The overall aesthetic is that of a mid-2000s kids’ show from the early days of computer animation; everything feels false and jittery, with character designs that range from forgettable to actively unpleasant to look at. Again – if you paid five bucks for this at a gas station, you’d feel ripped off. Instead, you’re getting it from the largest streamer in the world.
Also, I don’t come into a movie like this expecting “Citizen Kane,” but some sort of narrative cohesion would be nice. We get some pretty standard straight-from-the-comic-strip stuff at the onset, with Marmaduke’s misbehavior, but it isn’t long before we’re just swept along in a current of barely-connected nonsense. Expect to spend a fair amount of time shaking your head in utter bewilderment – I asked the question “What is happening?” aloud more than once. It’s bad enough that even an extended fart scene can’t save it for me (and y’all know I LOVE a fart scene).
Pete Davidson as Marmaduke. That feels like one of the most inevitable sentences ever written. Like, OF COURSE Pete Davidson is the voice of Marmaduke. Hell, he’s essentially the human version of Marmaduke. I’d say he’s phoning it in, but I’m not sure I could tell even if he was trying. The rest of the voice cast gives you exactly what you’d expect from a movie like this – no more, no less. There’s little else to say about them.
(Except JK Simmons, who is somehow in this movie? He’s a pro, but you can still hear hints of bemusement and exasperation in some of his line deliveries. And hey, I get it. Dude’s got an Oscar and he’s out here voicing a shiny dog that hates Marmaduke. Still – that new pool isn’t going to pay for itself.)
“Marmaduke” is a steaming pile of movie. If you step in this movie, you’ll need a stick to scrape squished “Marmaduke” from the treads of your shoes. As the saying goes, you can’t polish a turd – but it doesn’t seem like anyone here even tried.
All dogs are good dogs, but “Marmaduke” is a bad movie. Bad! Bad movie!
[0 out of 5]