The pesky great Dane and his humans make a new life in California. (Rated PG)
Surprisingly inventive and charming, with enough smarts to please parents as well as kids.
Owen Wilson, Emma Stone, Kiefer Sutherland
Along with minorities and women older than 40, parents are one of Hollywood's most ill-served audiences. Studios long ago realized that children will see anything based on a popular toy, book or video game, so why bother courting Mom and Dad? They'll be in the next seat, regardless.
But "Marmaduke," the first film adaptation of the decades-old comic-strip about a willful great Dane, shows what a little creativity and a well-chosen voice cast can do. A live-action film with some computer-animated snouts, it benefits from a clever script by Tim Rasmussen and Vince Di Meglio, both relative newcomers, and competent direction from Tom Dey.
The story begins somewhat typically: Marmaduke's owners, the Winslows - Phil (Lee Pace) and Debbie (Judy Greer) and their two children - move from Kansas to Southern California so Phil can work for an eccentric pet-food mogul (William H. Macy). But the film wisely limits our time with the humans. Instead, it becomes a canine John Hughes movie, with Marmaduke (voice of Owen Wilson) as the awkward new guy navigating a cliquish dog park.
The conceit works because it's mostly played straight. The main characters include the popular collie Jezebel (Fergie); her bullying Beauceron boyfriend, Bosco (Kiefer Sutherland); and tomboyish mutt Mazie (Emma Stone, pitch-perfect). As Marmaduke joins the pedigreed crowd and snubs his mixed-breed friends, it's easy to forget that the collars here are not of the upturned variety.
Add plenty of amusing details (rowdy dogs around a toilet chanting "chug it!") and you've got a talking-animal picture worth seeing. It ain't exactly "Babe," but it'll do.