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Parents say 'good boy' to 'Marmaduke'

PLOT

The pesky great Dane and his humans make a new life in California. (Rated PG)

BOTTOM LINE

Surprisingly inventive and charming, with enough smarts to please parents as well as kids.

CAST

Owen Wilson, Emma Stone, Kiefer Sutherland

LENGTH

1:28

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.

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