Will Ferrell and Jamie Foxx voice pooches on a mission in this hit-and-miss canine comedy, which gets lewd and crude with adorable dogs.
August 17, 2023
Canines are so beloved in cinema that the Cannes Film Festival even gives them a gong: the Palm Dog, which has been awarded to a performing pooch (sometimes several) annually since 2001. Among the past winners sit pups in Marie Antoinette, Up, The Artist, Paterson, Dogman and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — most real, one animated, some anointed posthumously and none scoring their prize for a quest to bite off someone's penis. That genitals-chomping journey belongs to the four-legged stars of Strays alone. They're played by actual animals, with CGI assisting with moving lips and particularly raucous turns, and they're unlikely to win any accolades for this raunchy lost-dog tale. The pooches impress. They're always cute. Also, they're capable of digging up laughs. But Strays is a one-bark idea that's tossed around as repetitively as throwing a tennis ball to your fluffy pal: take a flick about adorable dogs, and talking ones at that, then make it crude and rude.
Games of fetch do pop up in Strays, but via a version that no loving pet owner would ever want to play. This one is called "fetch and fuck", with stoner and constant masturbator Doug (Will Forte, I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson) doing the pitching. He isn't a kindly human companion to Reggie (voiced by Will Ferrell, Barbie). He's cruel and resentful after his girlfriend adopted the border terrier as a pupper, then left him when the dog exposed his cheating — and he insisted upon keeping the pooch purely out of spite. So, he constantly drives Reggie to various distant spots. He sends him running. As soon as the ball is in the air, Doug hightails it. The canine isn't supposed to follow him back, but does every single time, hence the expletive part of the pastime's name. With unwavering affection, plus the naivety to only see the good in his chosen person, Reggie thinks that it's all meant to be fun.
Being abandoned in a city hours away, and meeting Boston terrier Bug (Jamie Foxx, They Cloned Tyrone), Australian shepherd Maggie (Isla Fisher, Wolf Like Me) and great dane Hunter (Randall Park, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania) while he's there, soon has Reggie realising the truth about his relationship with Doug. Cue Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar director Josh Greenbaum and American Vandal creator/writer Dan Perrault sending the pup on a revenge mission with his new dog squad trotting along to help. Really, cue a parade of canines-gone-wild antics, each instance more OTT than the last. Urinating on something to claim it as your own and humping a grimy outdoor couch are just the beginning. Getting intimate with a garden gnome, squirrel threesomes, tripping on mushrooms, trying to use Hunter's great member to escape from doggy jail and a steaming pile of poop jokes: they are as well.
Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, A Dog's Purpose, Beethoven, every family-friendly pooch flick, any treacly ode to human's best friend: Strays definitely isn't in their pack. Depending on your fondness for super-sweet dog films, that isn't a bad thing. Cat & Dogs, Doctor Dolittle, Marmaduke, Babe, Paddington: Strays doesn't join those talking-animal pictures either. Instead, as Greenbaum and Perrault riff on the fact that canines love doing everything that humans do, their feature has more in common with Sausage Party, Ted, Good Boys (not a dog movie) and The Happytime Murders. Taking something that's usually for all-ages audiences, then ensuring that it 100-percent isn't: that's the formula that Strays seeks as eagerly and forcefully as a tail-wagger sprinting after a hurled stick.
Smearing straightforward gags about sex, drugs, crotches and bodily functions through a story about endearing pups isn't the film's best trait, even if that's the number-one approach and aim. Again, getting foul-mouthed and lewd with pooches is the entire concept and reason that the movie exists, but hitting the same beats over and over, then over and over some more, makes its 93-minute running time seem far longer than it is. Unsurprisingly, some comic bits are worn out quicker than a mutt's favourite chew toy. Strays is a better and funnier flick, however, when it's doing two things: leaning gleefully into the surreal and grounding its humour in perceptive insights into dog behaviour.
Glorious silliness doesn't come as easily to Greenbaum as it should, though — Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar is one of the best absurdist comedies of the 2020s, and best comedies in general — but it leads to a few standout moments. One involves fireworks experienced from the canine perspective. Another brings in bunnies. Both are memorable (as are a winking mid-picture celebrity cameo that riffs on the dog-movie genre and the use of Miley Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' at a pivotal moment). Strays also isn't afraid to get dark; it might be as predictable overall as a dog licking a bone, dishing up exactly what audiences expect, but it largely craps all over schmaltz. It's less convincing when it's trying to skew deep, with musings on self-worth, emotional trauma, and folks who bring pets into their lives with selfish and attention-seeking motives well-meaning but treated flimsily.
Perhaps it's fitting that Strays flits between perky (when it's bounding beyond the obvious) and sleepy (when it's happy chasing its own tail); IRL, the critters at its centre often do. Still, one thing can't be underestimated: the impact of the movie's voice work and animal cast. The wrong vocals would've left the film doing nothing but howling, and looking shoddy would've had it burying itself from frame one. Playing Reggie as an earnest child who navigates the world with curiosity and trust, Ferrell is basically in Elf mode, but it worked there and does the same here. Perfecting the pint-sized Bug's big-dog syndrome, Foxx is all swagger — while Fisher charms breezily and Park deadpans. And, even though it takes special-effects wizardry to make Strays' main quartet appear as if they're speaking, the real-life pups earn themselves ample treats. Although they still won't be winning any shiny trophies, they ensure that this hit-and-miss picture is just like people: better just by having dogs around.
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