Grown-ups might not roll over for “Show Dogs,” but children almost surely will. With its fart jokes and smart-alecky canines, this talking-animal comedy is aimed at a young audience anyway. For dog-loving adults, well, it’s just engaging enough to make them prick up their ears.
We first meet Max, a Rottweiler police dog voiced by rapper Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, as he’s staking out a gang of animal traffickers in a dangerous nighttime operation on the docks. As the K-9 officer reassures a frightened baby panda that everything will be all right, he lunges for the shadowy figure who has emerged out of the darkness to purchase the cuddly contraband. But that man (Will Arnett) turns out to be an undercover FBI agent named Frank, working without the knowledge or cooperation of local authorities. (We’ve seen this theme before in cop movies: the lack of coordination between law enforcement agencies. Perhaps, the film suggests, we can learn to do better from our four-legged friends.)
Frank and Max are furious at each other, with each one believing that he was this close to nailing the ringleader of the criminal operation. But under questioning by Frank, one of the mob’s underlings coughs up a tip — mostly in fear of the Rottweiler’s teeth — leading Frank and Max to Las Vegas, where they become reluctant partners. Next thing you know, they’re going undercover at the world’s most prestigious dog show.
This buddy movie/cop comedy takes its cue from such police-dog stories as “Turner and Hooch” — which it directly references — as well as the 1990 TV pilot “Poochinski,” in which the ghost of a murdered detective ends up inhabiting a gassy English bulldog.
But the elements of a police procedural ultimately play underdog to the glamorous kennel show, a setting that serves as a front for an exotic-animal trade. Frank enlists the aid of a seasoned dog handler (Natasha Lyonne), while Max is befriended by a former star show dog (Stanley Tucci) who went mad and was sent to the pound. The angry, adorable furball provides the movie’s most vivid characterization, his eyes widening as Tucci gleefully rants about slights — both real and perceived — from the purebred elite.
Director Raja Gosnell is no stranger to this much-maligned genre, with two live-action “Scooby Doo” films under his belt, as well as “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” (cutely referenced when a white chihuahua laments that “nobody makes talking-animal movies anymore”). As such things go, you can do much, much worse, with “Show Dogs” sitting somewhere in the middle of a spectrum that runs from the minor cult classic “An Easter Bunny Puppy” to Barry Sonnenfeld’s inventive “Nine Lives.”
If only ever so briefly, “Show Dogs” transcends ghettoization in a delirious fantasy sequence in which Frank and Max perform a pas de deux to “The Time of My Life,” the theme from “Dirty Dancing.” That bit — more than the prospect of talking dogs — may be just enough to make the average viewer sit and stay.