A few years back I heard NPR's JJ Sutherland hold forth on the subject of Joe Mathlete's odd blog, Marmaduke Explained:
"Marmaduke [the comic] simply is not funny. However, someone explaining Marmaduke - that's funny."
Mathlete's curious blog mines the deep shallows of Brad Anderson's cartoon, which has been around since the second year of the Eisenhower administration. Its central figure is Marmaduke himself, that Dennis the Menace of Great Danes, a creature that might be perceived as Scooby-Doo's dogfather.
Going into Marmaduke, the movie, I was thinking along Sutherland lines. Marmaduke may not be funny, but Owen Wilson as the voice of the Great Dane - now, that has possibilities.
Which in Tom Dey's shambling comedy largely go unexplored.
As talking-dog movies go, Marmaduke makes Beverly Hills Chihuahua look like Up. Like its four-legged star, Marmaduke is big, slobbery, and overeager, qualities that no doubt will delight the discriminating 6-year-old but leave her parents yawning.
It has two things going for it, which overstay their welcome fast.
First is its conceit that the dog park is like high school, with preening, pedigreed retrievers as the jocks, glossy-maned Afghans as the cheerleaders, and the mutts as misfits in this canine social order.
Second is Wilson's wifty delivery. The tilted Texan sounds like John Wayne on laughing gas. That has its charms - for about 10 minutes. Mostly, the packs of digitized dancing dogs resemble something one might see in a dog-food ad.
Why did Wilson take the part? Possibly because his first mainstream hit was a decade ago in Dey's Shanghai Noon. Possibly because the Labrador of actors, the human half of Marley & Me, is in his Shaggy-Dog Period, kind of like Picasso's Blue with fur.
To the extent the movie has a plot aside from scratch-and-sniff jokes, it's that the Winslows, Marmaduke's clan, move from Kansas to "Cali" - that's California to you - because Mr. Winslow (Lee Pace) got a job marketing a boutique dog-food brand.
While the Winslows' eldest, Barbara (Caroline Sunshine), adjusts to her new high school, Marmaduke adapts to his new dog park. He lusts after Jezebel (voice of Fergie), a collie with a glossy coat, and mostly ignores Mazie (voice of Emma Stone), a friendly mutt who shares her beloved chew toy. Anyone over the age of 6 knows how this will resolve.
As doggy movies go, this one gets two paws out of four.EndText