STRAYS (2023) – Review
This Summer the multiplex has been filled with superheroes, supercars, giant robots, dolls, atom bombs, and secret agents. So, where’s “man’s best friend”? How about a sweet family-friendly flick about those angelic “fur babies”? This weekend that request is addressed…sorta’. Yes, it’s full of cute, cuddly (mostly) live-action canines, but it is far from family-friendly as you can tell by the poster with one of the pups tearing into an “R” rating insert. Yes, there are a few sweet moments, but these mutts are behaving like, well, real mutts, engaging in all manner of crude activities (hence that rating). and this cursing pack of pooches would growl at being called “fur babies” as they prefer flaunting their “street cred” as STRAYS.
The first of them we meet, actually the story’s narrator, is a fuzzy naive border terrier named Reggie (voice of Will Ferrell). Oh, but his human owner calls him by a variety of nasty nicknames. That’s the slacker stoner Doug (Will Forte). who had acquired Reg for a long-departed girlfriend (smart lady). And now Doug wants to be rid of him, although Reggie thinks it’s a new fun version of “fetch”. Doug drives him to a desolate field or forest and tosses Reggie’s beloved ratty tennis ball. And the dog brings it back to their dingy shack every time. Then Doug decides to really “go for it”. The two drive two hours away from rural Oakwood to a scary big city. Poor Reggie is now truly lost. Just as it looks like he’ll be a “chew toy” for some bigger brutal dogs, he’s befriended by the self-proclaimed “street king”, a Boston terrier named Bug (VO: Jamie Foxx). While showing Reg the “ropes” he introduces him to a couple of pals. Maggie (VO: Isla Fisher) is a lovely Australian Shephard with a keen sense of smell, whose master ignores her in favor of a cute new puppy. And there’s the timid, lumbering Hunter (VO: Randall Park) a service Great Dane who won’t take off his “healing cone”.The quartet bonds and hatches a plan. Going by Reggie’s memory of “landmarks” (“a giant mouse-wheel, a huge cone, and the devil in the sky”). they’ll travel back to Doug for some very painful “payback”. But can they survive the long journey or will they end up in that fabled “farm up north”?
Well since the title named ‘strays” are the main focus of the film, we should discuss the vocal performances of several movie comedy vets. Ferrell makes Reggie a furry canine cousin to Buddy the ELF with his sunny outlook and bouncy energetic innocence. But Ferrell is also able to convey his frightened panic and Reggie’s near-boundless joy. Foxx gives Bug a very different energy, one of (sorry) alpha-dog swagger and aggressive determination. His wall of macho is finally chipped away by Reggie when he reveals his own past heartbreak with a human. Fisher exudes pluck and spunk as the lone lady who’s usually several steps ahead of the boys when the stakes are high. The biggest laughs (his “howling” got me every time) might be those garnered by the endearing Park who makes the looming giant Hunter into a sympathetic and emotionally vulnerable hero, though full of self-esteem issues (he can’t tap into his “BDM” energy). Along the trail, the quartet encounters a surly intimidating German Shephard police dog voiced by the gregarious Rob Riggle. As for the “people”, Forte somehow upstages those adorable pups as the cruel but somehow entertaining lowlife Doug, making him more than a nasty one-note villain. There’s also a scene showcasing the terrific comic actor Bret Gelman, but his skills are squandered in a sequence that makes little sense and seems to be a way to indulge in some scatological gags (honestly).
So despite the marketing campaign that makes the R-rated content clear, even taking a cue from the “red backdrop” poster from 2019’s GOOD BOYS, some folks still think this is a fun-filled all-ages furry romp. Which it certainly is not. So, does it deliver what it promises? Yes, there are indeed more laughs than in the funny “red band” trailers from the last couple of months. And somehow the script from Dan Perrault does include some heart-tugging moments as the strays try to deal with their need to be free and the yearning for a “people parent”.Director Josh Greenbaum, in his follow-feature to the underrated gem BARB AND STAR GO TO VISTA DEL MAR, keeps the pace fairly taut at a brisk 93-minutes though the dreaded lull rears its head before the final showdown. Oh, the effects are splendid harkening back to the “Dogville” comedy shorts 90 years ago. They used classic 2D animation to make the mutts’ mouths move, while slick CGI keeps the pups chattering away, and enables them to perform all manner of dangerous slapstick (the highlight may be a sight gag about the “invisible fence”). Sure it’s crude with the doggies indulging their “animal impulses”, but if you’re in the mood for some “low-bred” laughs then you may want to join this pack of STRAYS. So “sit”, “stay” and put away that phone (“bad viewer!”).
2.5 Out of 4
STRAYS is now playing in theatres everywhere