Good Boy!

on October 10, 2003 by Kim Williamson
Not as clear with or poignant in its emotions as previous Jim Henson productions, this boy-and-his-dog tale has one element so good it almost seems from another world: the young lead, Liam Aiken. Most familiar to moviegoers from playing the youngest son of Tom Hanks' character in "Road to Perdition," Aiken seamlessly interacts with "Good Boy!'s" talking canines at a deeper level of feeling than the film itself achieves, and the character notes he hits are flawless.

The story, based on a radio play "Dogs From Outer Space" by co-screen scenarist Zeke Richardson, posits in "Cats & Dogs" fashion that one's pets have secret lives; here, dogs are creatures from Sirius (the Dog Star) who came ages ago to rule our world, but instead they have become human companions. Sent by dog leader The Greater Dane (voiced by Vanessa Redgrave) to discern what has happened, though with no answer to a question of "Why now?", a standoffish border terrier named Canid 3942 (voiced by Matthew Broderick) crash-lands on Earth, is picked up by a dogcatcher, and is taken home from the pound by 12-year-old Owen (Aiken). Owen--"a little buddy is just what he needs," opines Dad--has no friends because his parents ("SNL" vets Kevin Nealon and Molly Shannon) are serial house restorers; they buy a wreck, fix it up, sell it and move on. Thanks to Owen being a neighborhood dogwalker, Canid 3942--whom a still-unsuspecting Owen names Hubble, in an unstated reference to astronomer Edwin Hubble--comes into contact with his intended locals. Clued in to what's going on by a cosmic accident that allows him to speak with the dogs, Owen, along with a now-sympathetic Hubble, decides to help the earth dogs pass themselves off as rulers of the planet to avoid being sent back to Sirius when The Greater Dane arrives. Comic hijinks ensue, followed by low drama, concluded by intended uplift.

What never arrives is a purpose for the movie, as with the nonetheless popular "Cats & Dogs"; unlike the emotions in, say, "My Dog Skip," which were real and human, the feelings in "Good Boy!" are artificial, and they lead to a treacly conclusion that has no meaning to it other than it means to make a young audience and their chaperoning parents feel good for a moment. It's a goal "Good Boy!" certainly achieves, though the tenure of that moment is certainly shorter than the filmmakers would want. Not helping matters is the cartoonish nature of some directorial decisions--once, when a dog hears something, its ears go way up, accentuated by closeup; another time, a chase scene is accompanied by an inexplicable presence of laughing gas. When something deeper sneaks in, as when a chance radio transmission proclaims, "Miracles are happening every day in our world," it has equal probability of being connected to nothing as to something. But there are some hits, as when the oft-relocated Owen, told by Hubble that he is on only "a temporary mission," replies with sorrow, "I'm used to temporary missions." In the end, though well distant from family-classic status, "Good Boy!" offers just enough to succeed in its mission, however ephemeral. Starring Liam Aiken, Kevin Nealon and Molly Shannon. Voices by Matthew Broderick, Vanessa Redgrave, Brittany Murphy, Carl Reiner and Delta Burke. Directed and written by John Hoffman. Produced by Lisa Henson and Kristine Belson. An MGM release. Comedy/Fantasy. Rated PG for some mild crude humor. Running time: 88 min

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