BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - Go figure: Adam Sandler and a puppy movie are going head-to-head over Christmas and the puppy movie is the one stirring controversy over its appropriateness for kids.

While "Bedtime Stories" is vying for the lucrative family holiday audience by casting a scrubbed-clean Sandler as an uncle whose fantasy tales to his niece and nephew start to come true, "Marley & Me" is more of a humor-tinged drama in which a married couple played by Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston experience life's growing pains while caring for their lovably raucous Labrador retriever.

The problem, at least in the eyes of "Bedtime" director Adam Shankman, is that "Marley," based on John Grogan's best-selling memoir, is being pitched as a straight-up family film. Instead of showing the adult stars, the poster features an adorable puppy gazing out at the viewer with a big red bow around his neck. The slogan: "This Christmas, Heel the Love."

"They're marketing the puppies," Shankman complained during an interview in Beverly Hills. "It's '101 Dalmatians.' I was sort of shocked when I saw the campaign. It's brilliant to a certain extent, but there'll be a backlash. That will cause problems, I think."

A journalist at the "Marley & Me" junket earlier this month shared this viewpoint, telling a panel of Wilson, Aniston, co-star Eric Dane and director David Frankel: "I have an issue with the way it's being marketed, because I think parents will look at that and say, 'Oh, cute dog movie! I can take my kid to it!' "

The main issue is this (spoiler alert: Quit reading if you're not one of the 5 million-plus folks who bought Grogan's book and don't want to know what happens): Not only does Aniston's character suffer a miscarriage, but the dog lives a complete life span, and the movie follows him to the very end.

"I've held a beloved family dog as she was put to sleep," the reporter told the "Marley" makers. "I just went through a miscarriage with my daughter. Seeing that sort of thing played out in a film with kids, I think, is going to be difficult. So in our reporting on it, what are we supposed to say? Should we say that the dog dies? Should we say that there are real-life issues? Or is it just not a family film the way it's being marketed?"

"I think it's OK to say there are real-life issues," Wilson said.

"Yeah," agreed Aniston.

"I think it's genuinely a movie for the whole family," director Frankel said, noting that both his 10-year-old nieces and his 70-something in-laws encouraged him to make the movie. "From the beginning, to me, it is a movie for people of all ages, and I think there's real merit in marketing it in a way that families will go . . . The joy of family is discussing aspects of life, the good and the bad."

"Growing up as a kid, we didn't know they were going to take Old Yeller out back and shoot him," Dane added.

Chris Petrikin, 20th Century Fox's senior vice president for corporate communications, also defended the campaign, saying: "It's a movie true to the best-seller on which it's based, that is about families in a real way. It's rated PG, not G and not PG-13, because of the sensitive, tasteful and touching way that it is handled, encompassing the entire 20-year life of a dog. It is totally appropriate for kids, with parental guidance, all of whom will lose pets they love, and is being marketed as such." *