Beverly Hills Chihuahua Review

As it goes in the movie business and the age of Digital 3D the once mighty live action animal movie seems to have gone the way of the dinosaur (along with the dinosaur movie). But looking at last fall's release slate, with the likes of Marley & Me, Hotel for Dogs, Wendy and Lucy and now Beverly Hills Chihuahua, it appears the good old fashioned dog movie is back in business. Somewhat ironically in these days where animation is king, it's Disney that's providing the push.

Drew Barrymore (in full on squeak mode) is the voice of Chloe, a pampered pooch with a penchant for the finer things in life: Prada booties, Chanel cologne, and poolside parties with her ensemble (a metrosexual pug, a high-class collie etc). A not so thinly veiled slight at Paris Hilton complete with a diamond-encrusted dog collar, she's admired from afar by Papi, a feisty male Chihuahua who belongs to gardener Sam (Manola Cardona).  Jamie Lee Curtis is her cosmetics mogul owner who jaunts off to launch her new overseas line and leaves Chloe in the care of her niece Rachel (Piper Parabo), who is less than impressed having to prioritize her weekend around this literal rich-bitch.

Hightailing it to a beach in Mexico with her pals, Rachel dumps Chloe in a motel room from which she promptly escapes only to be kidnapped -- forcing Rachel and Sam to search high and low and leaving Chloe to make her way in Mexico City aided by German Shepard Delgado (Andy Garcia) and an eclectic band of colorful critters. This being Disney the locations are lush, the set pieces elaborate, and the characters rigidly stereotypical, which actually borders on the mildly offensive. LA is pristine and flashy while Mexico is filthy, filled with filthy people and smelly stray mutts who role around in the filth (it's really filthy, you understand).

Having been kidnapped by a dog-fighting mogul (yes, seriously) Chloe's goal is basically to escape back to LA to get a bath. On her tail is king of the canine ring El Diablo, a vicious Doberman (Edward James Olmos having a whale of a time verbally chewing the scenery like an old bone). Along the way there is a get-by-with-a-little-help-from-my-friends parable where Chloe learns some values. Andy Garcia positively sleepwalks through his lines as the former police dog acting as bodyguard. Better is George Lopez as Papi, but again it's just another uncomfortable stereotype - all spunk and no smarts. Though once the comic relief shows up in the form of digitized Iguana Chico (Paul Rodriguez) and Rat Manuel (Cheech Marin) - who are surprise surprise, thieves - that the realities of the medium show through and you realize why studios don't bother much with this sort of film anymore. Completely CGI, Manuel and Chico are so expressive that the live animals, though well-trained, simply pale in comparison and you yearn to be watching Over the Hedge. The best-trained dog in the world can't offer much in the way of comedy beyond a "talk to the paw" gag.

The rest is frankly a little light on fun as Chloe makes her way from one precarious predicament to another. Approaching the third act when the flimsy premise has exhausted itself, the film takes a sharp left into we-know-not-what territory as Chloe and Delgado stumble on the "Lost City of the Chihuahuas" in the middle of the Mexican desert. Here a tribe of Chihuahuas, that have rejected the breed's perceived status as a fashion accessory, have adopted a Mayan temple as home and teach Chloe about her "inner Chihuahua," which is every bit as ridiculous as it sounds.

While Beverly Hills Chihuahua is undoubtedly a kid's movie, there really isn't much here for the kids to latch onto; Culture-clash humor? Kidnapping? Dog-fighting? It's all a bit dark for the target audience and all a bit sanitized for the rest of us. The best thing on offer is Piper Parabo, whose sparkly personality and ample comedic skill aren't given nearly enough screen time. Very young kids are likely to scratch their heads while grown ups will giggle for a few minutes then doze off. But for what it's worth, my cat thought all the running around was the greatest thing he'd seen since Big Cat Diary week on the Discovery Channel. Bottom line: dog lovers will go crazy, everyone else will yawn and wonder what all the fuss is about.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

Director Raja Gosnell, whose resume shows he knows a thing or two about fish out of water hijinks (Home Alone 2) and canine-based comedy (Scooby Doo) does his best to explain away the awkward mishmash of ideas. He's somewhat insightful about the dogs and how staging scenes entirely around the furred and the four-footed works (or doesn't). Like the film itself, committed dog fanciers will probably be more interested than film fans. There's a 2D feature cobbled together that explains the breed's history that is again: one for the dog folk. The voice actors answer questions like "what kind of dog would you be?" and then tell us about the dogs they have, why they like dogs, etc. The studio booth footage is much more fun and illustrates the huge difference between voice acting and acting for the camera. On set with the dogs is a pooch lover's paradise where you get to see how they're trained and all their cute little antics. Accompanying this doggy love fest is a blooper reel and some throwaway deleted scenes.

"Beverly Hills Chihuahua" is on sale March 3, 2009 and is rated PG. Children & Family. Directed by Raja Gosnell. Written by Analisa LaBianco and Jeffrey Bushell. Starring Andy Garcia, Drew Barrymore, Edward James Olmos, Geroge Lopez, Jamie Lee Curtis, Piper Parabo.

Neil Pedley • Associate Editor

Neil is a film school graduate from England now living in New York. In addition to JustPressPlay, Neil writes about for Uinterview.com as well as being a columist and weekly podcast host at IFC.com. His free time is spent acting out scenes from Predator in the woods behind his house, playing all the different parts himself.


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