Beverly Hills Chihuahua (Disney) isn't terrible. OK, it's kind of terrible, but it's a talking-dog movie, and anyone who goes to a talking-dog movie without being prepared to step in poop deserves to ruin his shoes. Indulgent parents and animal lovers, steel yourselves for pooches done up in couture outfits (who is the canine Edith Head, I wonder?), quadrupedally modified one-liners ("Talk to the paw!"), and a plot that's like a succession of "Yo quiero Taco Bell"commercials minus the fast-food come-on. And owing to the film's message that every stray dog's dream is to get taken in by a loving family, it's probably wise to give the pound a wide berth on the drive home.
Nevertheless, there are moments when, to borrow from the movie's doggie-modified parlance, Beverly Hills Chihuahua is "off the leash." (Note to Disney: I'd appreciate it if "Josh Levin: Beverly Hills Chihuahua is off the leash!" doesn't appear in upcoming newspaper ads. Please read on.) Drew Barrymore nails the rich-bitch inflection of pampered lap dog Chloe, making barked-out commands like "I have a mani-pedi at 11 and you have to make my waffles" sound just as grating and odious as they read on the page. It's Barrymore's pleading voice that makes Chloe's downward spiral upon getting lost in Mexico—her diamond-encrusted Harry Winston collar gets stolen, and she's forced to sleep in a cardboard box under a park bench and fight off a pack of strays for a discarded churro—actually amusing at times. Andy Garcia, too, brings depth and pathos to the role of a jaded ex-police dog—his character, the German shepherd Delgado, has the best movie-animal flashback since the chimp Elijah in Being John Malkovich—and Luis Guzmán does his best dog-voicing work in years as a pit bull caught up in the dog-fighting racket.
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The amiable doggie camaraderie, the shaggy jokes, the uncharismatic humans (Piper Perabo as the irresponsible lass who misplaces the titular Chihuahua and Manolo Cardona as the landscaper who helps in her search)—none of this is unexpected for an animal-laden Disney romp. But don't be mistaken: Beverly Hills Chihuahua is odd, and not in a pleasant way. Kid movies often depict protagonists who get lost in strange, frightening lands. It's always tricky when that strange, frightening land happens to be a real place populated by a real ethnic group. Beverly Hills Chihuahua scratches vigorously at Mexico's seedy underbelly: Chloe gets captured by a band of dogfighters; has a run-in with a computer-generated, piñata-thieving rat named Manuel (Cheech Marin); and joins up with a coyote who smuggles collarless dogs across the border to America, where they presumably hope to find higher wages, better schools, and improved butt-sniffing opportunities.
The gringa Chloe—and her human proxy, Perabo's Rachel—do eventually come around to thinking that Mexico is muy bueno. For the protagonist with a tail, the transformation comes when she reaches the state of Chihuahua, the birthplace of her breed. There she meets a dog named Montezuma (Plácido Domingo, bizarrely), who is the Marcus Garvey of a Back to Chihuahua movement, declaring that "when a Chihuahua comes home it is time for celebration" and urging Chloe to say "no más" to life as a lap dog. Soon after, the pampered pooch realizes that Papi (George Lopez)—the landscaper's pet, whom she had previously dismissed as a dirty, smelly, lower-class animal—is her corazón. And in the world where peeing happens indoors, Rachel stops speaking to Sam the landscaper in snippy Spanglish and asks him for a date el viernes por la noche. Got that lesson, kids? Mexicans aren't dirty, smelly, and lower class. They're people (and dogs), too!
Of course, it's unrealistic to think that a single film could erase the horrible scourge of canine racism. But perhaps Disney could have delivered its anodyne message of tolerance and being true to yourself without first teaching kids a handful of hearty stereotypes. The movie's story arc makes even less sense when you consider that the cast of Latino all-stars—Garcia, Guzmán, Lopez, Marin, Edward James Olmos, and Paul Rodriguez, among others—seems designed to draw in a Hispanic audience. It's annoying enough to listen to a talking dog crack a joke about wanting a male companion "who's not fixed." Oye, Disney: Racistas animales no son divertidos.