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Non-Review Review: Cats and Dogs III – Paws Unite

The pandemic has been an interesting time for film critics.

The general dearth of mainstream theatrical releases has allowed critics to essentially pick and choose the films that they cover on streaming. As a general rule, this has led to the elevation of good films, with critics generally picking films out of the mass of streaming service releases that merit coverage and attention – films like Palm Springs or Greyhound. Of course, there have been a couple of stinkers, particularly among children’s fare with mass audience appeal like Artemis Fowl or Scoob!, but by and large critics have been able to avoid true stinkers.

Dogsbody work.

As such, the arrival of Cats and Dogs III – Paws Unite! marks something of a return to normality and business as usual. It is the kind of film that critics would have had to see and review as a matter of course in the pre-pandemic era as a major theatrical release, but which might have slipped under the radar had it gone straight to streaming. Watching Cats and Dogs III – Paws Unite is a reminder of a time not too long ago when critics were expected to see every major theatrical release, no matter how dark or how soul-destroying that experience might be.

With that in mind, there is something almost reassuring in the awfulness of Cats and Dogs III – Paws Unite!, a movie that few critics would actively seek out if it weren’t for the obligations of their job. In a world that is desperately scrambling for any vague sense of a return to normality, Paws Unite! servers as a welcome reminder when seeing terrible movies was the worst thing with which film critics had to contend.

Keep on trucking.

The Cats and Dogs franchise is an interesting beast. The three movies in the series are separated by almost a decade from one another, with the original released in 2001 and the sequel released in 2020. Presumably the target audience for each film in the series has grown up in the gap before the next installment. It is fascinating to wonder how desperately the Cats and Dogs fanbase waits eagerly on the next film in the series, and to wonder whether the studio might do better by simply scrapping the brand name and just selling each installment as a distinct talking animal movie.

To be fair, Paws Unite! almost feels like a relic of another era. It is a classic “talking animal” movie, one that recalls the old charm of Mister Ed or even Look Who’s Talking Now. The past few years have seen an explosion in movies about dogs with vibrant internal monologues, from A Dog’s Journey to The Art of Racing in the Rain, but Paws Unite! is a curiously old-fashioned example of the breed, in that it is a movie where the animals mouths literally move as they speak English out loud to one another – and, the movie confirms, to humans where they choose.

Paws for thought.

It’s a very strange film, one that feels like a clumsy and awkward attempt to cash in on the modern “people and their dogs” movie fad that includes films like Alpha, Call of the Wild and even Togo. It is the budget equivalent of Walt Disney’s recent pseudo-live-action Lady and the Tramp, and feels like a movie that is destined to be repeated on the Hallmark channel at the strangest hours of the morning, as if a haunting waking nightmare for any insomniacs desperately channel-hopping.

Paws Unite! is a mess of a movie. It attempts to be several things, the most interesting of which is effectively a buddy cop movie about a cat and a dog forced to team up with one another in order to figure out who is responsible for the recent breakdown in peaceful relations between cats and dogs. (“As you might have guessed, we are not your average pets,” explains Roger the dog early in the film.) The pair work for Furry Animals Rivalry Termination, whose acronym “F.A.R.T.” sets the tone for the movie. It is “the most silent but deadly organisation of all-time.”

Canine out of ten?

Paws Unite! aims for the classic “odd couple” dynamic between Roger the dog and Gwen the cat. Again, there’s an obvious and cynical point of reference for this, the awkward buddy cop dynamic at the heart of Zootopia. However, Paws Unite! can’t exactly figure out where the tension is supposed to be between Roger and Gwen. Is it supposed to be a metaphor for racism? Is it a clash of philosophies? The movie occasionally goes for some awkward “dogs pee standing up” humour that feels oddly gendered. (“Your kind would never grasp it,” Roger muses.)

Of course, there are gestures to modernity. Instead of using old-fashioned effects like peanut butter to affect the movement of the animals’ lips, Paws Unite! uses computer-generated imagery. This is perhaps the most humane approach, but it pushes the film into the uncanny valley, adding a hard-to-quantify sense of “wrongness” to proceedings that is only enhanced by the use of practical effects like puppetry from close-ups of their paws. It’s grotesque and unsettling, the stuff of low-budget nightmares.

Pet theories.

There are other awkward nods to modernity, which largely consist of a grab-bag of outdated pop culture references, including the bizarre decision to include an “Iron Dog Costume” for the villain, which seems like a rather blatant nod to the hottest cinematic franchise of twelve years ago, Iron Man. The movie seems to assume that merely placing a villainous parakeet inside a cheap computer-generated heads-up display will prove that the movie is hip with kids. If that doesn’t work, there’s also an “instagram filter” montage.

There’s a desperate sense of “middle aged men sitting in a room, complaining about the crap their kids (or grandkids) watch while making a low-rent version of crap their kids (or grandkids) watch” to Paws Unite! There’s a palpable sense of old men shaking their fists at the sky in Paws Unite!, with the villain’s evil plan hinging on exploiting “online piracy” to infiltrate computer networks, in the most blatant example of a movie illustrating “what executives think is evil” since Mulan worried about the possible disruption of trade into China.

Raising the roof.

Similarly, there’s a subplot in which Roger and Gwen struggle to unite their teenage owners. Roger gripes about how little time his owner spends with him, instead staring at his phone. “These kids don’t even engage with each other!” Gwen complains. She later admits, “I knew technology was evil.” Roger and Gwen conspire to get their owners trapped in a lift together without their phones, to force them to communicate with another human being. “It’s kind of nice, isn’t it?” one of them asks, validating the movie’s “kids these days” aesthetic. “Actually having a conversation?” 

It’s all incredibly condescending and vaguely passive-aggressive, a stern lecture to the movie’s target audience about the evils of phones and tablets within a movie that many will likely watch on a phone or a tablet. There’s a sense of minimum effort to Paws Unite!, which would feel cheap and lazy even if it was broadcast free on television rather than screening in cinemas. If TENET was a welcome reminder of the joys of blockbuster spectacle, the theatrical release of Paws Unite! is a reminder that what comes down the theatrical pipeline isn’t always as rewarding.

There is a strange, paradoxical comfort in the hollowness of Paws Unite!, a film that wouldn’t merit a review but for its theatrical release. Things are returning to normal. Film critics are watching terrible movies.

One Response

  1. Well… if you don’t think that the new generations are indeed relying too much on non-personal interaction through technology, rather than actually developing face-to-face social skills, then I don’t know what to tell you.

    Agree to disagree, I suppose.

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