I used to be a dog lover, until a neighborhood of incessantly barking animals and their irresponsible owners cured me of that. But one of my adult sons and his wife are dog people, and like all dog people they trotted over to see "Marley & Me" when it played local theaters in 2008. That film was pitched at adults who think of their pets as family, and it came with a heavy dose of reality and a good cry . . . hankies not included. "Good movie," my son said. "But sad."
It's misleading for Fox to title this one "Marley & Me: The Puppy Years," because the direct-to-video offering has more in common with Disney's "buddies" movies than it does its tear-jerking namesake.
Disney spun off of their successful "Air Bud" and other sport-dog films to create a cadre of talking puppies movies--cute little golden retrievers who were the offspring of Bud, hence the tag "buddies." It's all about the cute factor, as the writing and plotting for the buddies franchise has made perfectly clear. "Marley & Me: The Puppy Years" serves up some of the same, but with a yellow Labrador retriever and his two lab pals providing the talking-dog antics. The audience, as will be immediately evident, is young children in the 4-8 age range. Older ones will side with the adults, who'll find it over-the-top, formulaic, and too cute for its own good.
The funny thing is, kids might not think it's cute enough. My daughter, who just cleared the age range, said she liked the "buddies" films better because they focused more on the cute puppies as they tried to do this or that. Here, we get slightly older dogs--still pups, but not Christmas-stocking size, by any means. In the early going, the focus is on Marley's misbehavior. What's strange, though, is that when Marley was unable to talk in the original film, people still thought he was lovable because you looked at his face and thought, Hey, he's just a dog, he doesn't know any better, or something to that effect. But when you have a talking dog saying he's going to mess with this or mess with that, suddenly it's not as lovable. And for kids, it sends the wrong kind of message, doesn't it? It would be tempting to call Marley (voiced by Grayson Russell) a doggie version of Dennis the Menace, but at least Dennis thought he was being helpful, and the gap between his naiveté and the mischief he caused was the source of laughter. Marley revels in his naughtiness and maliciousness, which isn't exactly the stuff role models are made of. Same with the authority figure in this film, who suggests trespassing and other illegal things, saying, "After all, I'm a ex-Marine." Uh, okay. I'm sure the police would be just fine with that.
Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston were quickly and conveniently written out of this "midquel" by having them go off on assignment somewhere, leaving relatives to watch after Marley. And since the mother, Carol (Chelah Horsdal), has to go to a leadership conference, she drops off Marley and son Bodi (Travis Turner) at Grandpa's house (Donnelly Rhodes). Ex-Marine Grandpa has false teeth and acute hearing, and both are used as too-easy running jokes that run quickly run down Tiresome Lane.
It turns out that Bodi wants a dog of his own, and he poses a deal that could have been a decent enough premise for the whole film: if he can train the misbehaving Marley by the time she gets back from her conference, he'll have demonstrated enough maturity to where he would be allowed to get his own dog.
Shades of "Flipper," there's a teenage girl (Sydney Imbeau) who's sympathetic and tries to help. In this case, she's training her pugs to win this year's Ultimate Puppy Agility Team Competition, and she tells Bodi about it. If she wins or places, it's more money to keep her mom and dad's (whom we never see) pug rescue afloat. Naturally, he thinks that if he can coax Mrs. Crouch (Merrilyn Gann) into letting him have her two labs, Moose and Fuschia (Ryan Grantham, Lauren Lavoie), to train as well, he could have a trio to enter the contest.
Really? That's kind of like someone who's never played an instrument before thinking they can win a local talent contest when there's just three weeks to practice.
Here's where the film starts to go astray. It's a tired old gimmick to write in a competition, and it gets even sleepier when the winner for the past three years is a caricature of a German named Hans (Alex Zahara) and his "Woof Pack," three miniature Doberman pinschers, who predictably have to resort to dirty tricks and dognapping at some point, though nobody's dogs come close to the trained Dobermans.
It's over-the-top, it's silly, and "Marley & Me: The Puppy Years" is aimed at people who don't care, or who don't notice inconsistencies throughout the story. Like, if this Ultimate Puppy Championship is enough to keep the Germans living the high life year after year, why does it look no bigger than an event at the local mall, with only a relative handful of spectators? And why does the pool the dogs jump in look so much smaller than the the one on the You Tube video we see earlier in the film?
For a competition movie, we really don't see a lot of training, and that's the kind of crack that, if tension were oxygen bottled up, amounts to a slow leak. There's never any real threat, never any real competition, never any doubt as to any of the outcomes except for a contrived switch at the end--all of which is why "Marley & Me: The Puppy Years" is strictly for the little ones. Unless you find it amusing to see a dog in a pool farting and saying, pleased with himself, "Jacuzzi!"
"Marley & Me: The Puppy Years" is rated PG for "mild rude humor."
"Marley & Me: The Puppy Years" comes to Blu-ray (50GB disc) via an AVC/MPEG-4 codec, and I didn't see any problems with the transfer. Colors are bright and peppy, and there's a suggestion of 3-dimensionality brought about by decent edge delineation. Black levels seem wanting in some sequences, but overall it's a picture that should appeal to HD-lovers. "Marley" is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio.
The featured audio is the industry-standard English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that has just enough pop so that it comes to life during rambunctious scenes that are more loud than dynamic. What you mostly notice is the whimsical music that's meant to create the "isn't this funny" mood that serves as a substitute for real humor. Subtitles are in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
There's not much here--just a 10-minute making-of featurette that shows the dog wranglers at work, a four-minute "My Favorite Moments" featurette showing the cast interacting with the animals, and a two-minute montage with additional footage against a backdrop of reggae. Yeah, mon? No, mon.
If you think "Marley & Me: The Puppy Years" is going to be a cheerier version of "Marley & Me," think again. With this one you get talking dogs, cheesy villains, and situations that are supposed to be funny but seldom produce any laughs. It's strictly for the young ones.