When baby panda Ling Li is kidnapped by animal traffickers, FBI agent Frank (Will Arnett) is teamed with a tough-minded NYPD K-9 unit rottweiler, Max (voiced by Chris “Ludacris” Bridges). Their mission is to infiltrate a Las Vegas dog show, where Ling Li is due to be sold. There, Max mingles with a fallen champion papillon named Philippe (Stanley Tucci), affable Australian shepherd Daisy (Jordin Sparks), excitable pug Sprinkles (Gabriel Iglesias), Zen-master komondor Karma (Shaquille O’Neal), and Persephone (RuPaul), a, gosh, is that even a dog?
Former lone wolf Max must overcome his prejudices against what Ronda Rousey would call “do nothing bitches”. More pressingly, he must become accustomed to having his undercarriage handled by the judges. Yes. This is an actual plot point.
Bottoms, with crushing inevitability, are bitten.
We have a soft spot for talking dog movies that extends as far – irrationally far – as Look Who's Talking Now, the film that Quentin Tarantino felt morally obliged to rescue John Travolta from. As Babe is our witness, The Incredible Journey (1963 version) is a movie hill we choose to die on.
We don't want fancy tricks and obstacle courses from our talking dog pictures. But we do want more than the declining sub-genre evidenced by Cats & Dogs, Beverly Hills Chihuahua, and now Show Dogs.
Raja Gosnell has form, having directed Scooby Doo and Beverly Hills Chihuahua. His film isn't afraid to be cartoonish – dog date on a zip-line, anyone? – but it is preposterously random. A terrific voice cast are squandered on a sceenplay littered with lazy word-play and feeble jokes. "Birds of a feather fight crime together!" Max's pigeon super-fans announce in lieu of an actual punchline.
The live action cast aren't served any better by Max Botkin and Marc Hyman's fast and loose script. Arnett, whose accent wanders from New York to Lego Batman, is likeable enough to shine through the most misjudged gags. But a cross-species Dirty Dancing fantasy sequence that pairs Frank and Max takes the doggy biscuit.
The fluff factor may sell this mutt movie to smaller viewers, but it has no business in the winner’s circle.