Marmaduke the movie is exactly the kind of mind-numbing kiddie trash that parents dread taking their kids to. Director Tom Dey, he of instantly disposable genre falderal like Failure to Launch, Showtime, and Shanghai Noon, and screenwriters Vince Di Meglio and Tim Rasmussen, the duo behind a film called Smother, try so hard to impress viewers of all ages with their sincerity that they don’t even give us enough reason to resent them for wasting 88 precious minutes that feel almost twice that long. As a result, Marmaduke is just really, well, there. Come for the talking dogs, stay for the errant and truly inexplicable ’80s pop-culture references. (Apparently these guys have a thing for ’80s beefcake because David Hasselhoff is name-dropped twice while two of Patrick Swayze’s more iconic roles are alluded to).
In order to have enough material for a feature length film, Marmaduke explicitly treats its mastiff hero like a hormonal teenager. Marmaduke (voiced by Owen Wilson) is a Great Dane with a lot of ’tude, an inferiority complex, and a tendency to screw up his owner Phil’s (Lee Pace) life by tearing up the furniture and knocking Phil’s scrupleless oddball of a boss (William H. Macy) off his feet. In other words, he’s just a big ’ol teenage problem child. And by this tenuous logic, the dog park is the place where dogs congregate according to cliques, such as the friendly outcast mixed breeds like the erudite Raisin (Steve Coogan, for shame) and well-meaning but homely Mazie (Emma Stone), and the purebred popular kids, like airhead beauty Jezebel (Stacy Ferguson), bad boy “top dog” Bosco (Kiefer Sutherland), and comic relief Lightning (Marlon Wayans). Marmaduke spends much of the film trying to rustle up some confidence, overcoming his fear of bitches, and bringing unity to the park’s various factions.
There’s not a moment when Marmaduke strays outside of the kind of paint-by-numbers plot that governs schoolhouse sitcoms like Boy Meets World. Dey and the gang undoubtedly expected the incongruity of that kind of stock plot with this kind of protagonist to reap comic gold, but all the hilarity inherent in their fish-out-of-water scenario is, of course, strained well beyond belief.
Sadly, not all of Marmaduke revolves around hilarious sequences like canine surfing competitions, CGI doggy dance montages that would surely put Busby Berkeley to shame, or witty repartee with Carlos the ethnic cat (George Lopez), who calls everybody “hermano” or “amigo” (one of many signs of this film’s remarkable verisimilitude). Instead, we get to watch Phil try to keep his hectic life under control. Because he’s swamped with work, Phil just doesn’t have time to listen to his kids. While his smallest child Sarah (Mandy and Milena Haines) is too young to have problems, his eldest, Barbara (Caroline Sunshine), is lackadaisically being courted by surfer boy Bodie (Glenn McCuen), who is sure to become the next Justin Bieber for his dreamy blond hair and hard squint alone, while Phil’s middle child Brian (Finley Jacobsen) just doesn’t want to play soccer. If they lowered the stakes in this film anymore than they already have, you definitely wouldn’t be able to limbo under them anymore.
Marmaduke is such an unambitious bit of milquetoast flotsam that it makes one fondly remember other egregiously unremarkable talking animal pics like Homeward Bound II: Lost in San Francisco and Milo & Otis, the poorly edited and dubbed American re-edit of Japanese fluffterpiece Konkeo Monogatori. Phil huffs and sighs a lot about not being able to juggle both his home life and his workload all at once while Marmaduke mugs for the camera and tries to fit in, make friends, and pick the right girl to hold paws with over a jar of peanut butter. Carlos fulfills his stereotypical requirements and cracks a lone, barely funny joke about being on drugs that Cheech & Chong drove into the ground decades earlier, but other than that, Marmaduke was designed to be as nondescript as possible in its mediocrity. I have seen the enemy and I have already forgotten what it looks like.