2.5 out of 5 stars

Any live-action film about talking animals has a hard act to follow in Cats and Dogs (2001), and Josh Greenbaum’s Strays poses no threat to the genre’s Citizen Kane (Citizen Canine?). This film isn’t marketed at children yet its idea of “adult comedy” is dominated by toilet humour and sex words, all familiar and uncreative, used over and over to the point their snigger value is exhausted.

There’s occasionally smarter humour from Dan Perrault’s screenplay, but it’s very occasional, and the movie—not to be confused with Nathaniel Martello-White’s horror The Strays, also heavy-handed in a different way—seriously drags even at a mere 93-minutes.

It’s a pity because when Strays isn’t vainly trying to get a reaction from the umpteenth repetition of a four-letter word, there are some good comic ideas here and engaging characterisations from the voice cast. But the actors are overwhelmed by the low-bar material.

Strays opens with cosy clichés it aims to destroy: jaunty music, a dog’s-eye-view of butterflies and grass, and then a border terrier declaring “Every day is the best day ever”. This is Reggie (voiced by Will Ferrell), and his life is founded on a misunderstanding: his owner Doug (Will Forte), whose main interests in life are weed and masturbation, in fact detests him and only kept Reggie after splitting with his girlfriend in order to hurt her.

Doug often calls Reggie “Shitbag” and frequently attempts to abandon him, but Reggie/Shitbag assumes this is just a game and makes his way home every time, much to Doug’s disgust.

Once again trying to get rid of his unwanted pet, Doug drives him to a city several hours away and abandons him there. This time Reggie can’t just trot back quickly, so finds new canine friends in a fast-talking, nervy Boston terrier called Bug (Jamie Foxx), a shy and fastidious Great Dane called Hunter (Randall Park), and a solicitous Australian shepherd called Maggie (Isla Fisher),

Reggie is soon educated in the realities of stray life by these three, especially Bug, and learns that “a dog’s purpose” (a sly reference to the 2017 movie) isn’t to please humans but to do whatever a dog wants. Unsurprisingly, this mostly involves bodily functions.

The strays also open Reggie’s eyes to the truth about his owner Doug, so the four dogs head off to teach this uncaring human a lesson. What the lesson involves will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the trailers.

As in many dog movies, however, the plot is largely an excuse for the mutts to do their things, and all four are very watchable—especially Foxx’s Bug and Park’s Hunter, a droll character who dropped out of police dog school and is embarrassed by his inability to howl. Reggie is less chucklesome but has more emotional depth to counteract that.

Not much is made of other dogs beyond the central quartet, and they mostly only appear for a single joke each, although a German Shepherd called Rolf who works for the police (Rob Riggle) and his bloodhound sidekick are entertaining. The mix of live action and CGI for the animals is fairly successful, though the “speaking” mouths of the smaller dogs are more convincing than those of the larger ones. (All the strays are implausibly well-groomed despite living on the streets, too.)

Humans, meanwhile, don’t come out of the film particularly well and are as one-dimensional as you’d expect. (The genre requires that: a dog movie with rounded, credible humans would fail in its mission of showing the world from a canine perspective.)

A few moments of Strays are genuinely amusing. There’s the odd nice throwaway line (“You know that I can’t live that close to a school”, Doug says on the phone. “Technically we’re all sons of bitches”, a dog observes), fun is had with stereotypical dog behaviour (like attitudes toward fireworks and postmen) as well as human behaviour (the dogs elaborately misinterpret our motives for picking up their mess), and there’s an unexpected and hilariously pointless cameo from Dennis Quaid.

But these high points are few and far between. As the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) said in a rare expression of critical insight, the “crude humour is relentless throughout.” Relentless is the perfect word. Unfortunately, there’s only a limited amount of comedic value in potty-mouthed dogs, especially when the (mildly) crude words are so unimaginatively delivered.

It’s perhaps disappointing, too, that Strays can’t bring itself to follow its own hard-heartedness to a logical conclusion and ends up back in the fluffy-bunny territory it was parodying at the start (despite one of the film’s best jokes having actually been about fluffy bunnies, and very dark).

Strays might claim to be an adults-only dog comedy… but in truth it’s more like a dog comedy that’s only just matured to the point it thinks swear words are hysterical and daring.


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Cast & Crew

director: Josh Greenbaum.
writer: Dan Perrault.
voices/starring: Will Ferrell (voice), Jamie Foxx (voice), Isla Fisher (voice), Randall Park (voice) & Will Forte.