Marmaduke -- Film Review

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It's hard to believe that many of this millennium's kids still read "Marmaduke," but the comic strip has been going strong since the early 1950s. It's even harder to believe that Fox made a feature film based on a single-panel comic in an era where expensive fan-boy fare such as "Watchmen" or "Elektra" sometimes flame out.

There's no denying the Southern California setting makes for breezy if bland summertime fare, and children undoubtedly will be amused. Unlike the boundless energy of its title character, though, this looks to be a modest performer at the boxoffice.

Another curiosity is why producer John Davis, director Tom Dey and screenwriters Tim Rasmussen and Vince Di Meglio changed strip creator Brad Anderson's Great Dane into a wisecracker who now talks to his numerous four-legged co-stars and occasionally to the camera. Marmaduke (voiced by Owen Wilson) narrates this sitcom story, a tale full of predictable comic pratfalls and equally predictable heartwarming life lessons.

About the only connection to the single-panel strip is that the dog belongs to Phil Winslow (Lee Pace) and his wife (Judy Greer). Near the outset, Phil moves the family (teen daughter, son and younger daughter) from Kansas to Orange County, Calif., with pets Marmaduke and Carlos, a Russian Blue cat (George Lopez), in tow.

Marketing executive Phil has an eccentric, dog-loving new boss, Don Twombly (an uncomfortably cast William H. Macy), who takes meetings while strolling barefoot in a lavish dog park. It's here that Marmaduke bonds with several other mutts. And it's also here that they're taunted by high-class pedigrees led by bullying Bosco (Kiefer Sutherland). The film's basic puppy love triangle involves best pal Mazie (Emma Stone) and the more upper-crust Jezebel (Fergie).

The filmmakers use computer effects in unsurprising fashion, though kids surely will like the impromptu surfing contest with Marmaduke hanging ten and doing aerial acrobatics. The voice cast goes mostly for laughs, mouthing every dog pun and cliche ever recorded.

None of the human actors other than Pace gets much screen time. His casting (whether by design or not) evokes Dean Jones' Great Dane owner in Walt Disney's 1966 comedy "The Ugly Dachshund," right down to the character's clean-cut '60s look.

A snippet of another Disney dog story, 1957's "Old Yeller," can be glimpsed as well. It's always risky to remind viewers blatantly of better movies from years past. But one thing "Marmaduke" does have in common with the earlier Disney titles is a blessed scarcity of crass bodily-function gags that often pass as family comedy.

Opens: Friday, June 4 (Fox)
Production: Fox and Regency Entertainment present a Davis Entertainment Co. production
Cast: Owen Wilson, Emma Stone, George Lopez, Lee Pace, Judy Greer, William H. Macy, Kiefer Sutherland, Fergie, Sam Elliott, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Steve Coogan, Damon Wayans Jr., Marlon Wayans
Director: Tom Dey
Screenwriters: Tim Rasmussen, Vince Di Meglio
Based on the comic by: Brad Anderson, Phil Leeming
Producer: John Davis
Executive producers: Arnon Milchan, Tariq Jalil, Jeffrey Stott, Derek Dauchy
Director of photography: Greg Gardiner
Production designer: Sandy Cochrane
Music: Christopher Lennertz
Costume designer: Karen Matthews
Editor: Don Zimmerman
Rated PG, 88 minutes
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