The new comedy Strays opens as one might expect from a movie featuring adorable talking dogs: sunshine, upbeat music, weightless bounding across emerald-colored fields. It’s the best day ever, as the clueless Border terrier named Reggie says in the voice of Will Ferrell, and he knows it because every day is the best day ever. He doesn’t really notice that his reluctant owner (Will Forte) is a certified piece of garbage, taking a break from his strict schedule of smoking weed and masturbating only to drive his unwanted hanger-on several towns away and abandon him in a clearing. In a drastic departure from the baseline sentimentality customary for dog-based cinema, the film follows Reggie’s odyssey back home so he can bite the dick off of the man he finally realizes doesn’t love him, with obscene detours involving psilocybin mushrooms, an unusually large erection, and an avalanche of poop along the way.
Strays prides itself on being the counterpoint to the touchy-feely standard of the dog movie, though the subgenre isn’t all nose kisses and lesson-learning. The list below collects history’s top movie dogs, a motley (mutt-ley?) menagerie encompassing figures of tragedy and comedy, surrogate fathers and sons, heroes and villains, clever rascals and irresistible idiots. Within the recurring themes of lonerism, intimacy, and the tentative process by which one becomes the other, there’s room for a whole lot of variation. A detective, a semi-pro athlete, a stylistic device come to life, a silent movie star caught up in the currents of the 20th century — if the cartoon is to be believed, the only thing they have in common is that they’re all going to heaven.
25. Brandy, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
The Cannes Film Festival doesn’t bestow the prestigious Palm Dog award on just anybody. As the main female presence in stuntman Cliff Booth’s life — she waits for the widower in his trailer-park abode in place of the late wife he may or may not have murdered — canine actress Sayuri ably holds her own as a scene partner opposite Brad Pitt, expertly working the comedic beats of feeding time. And whether you find the orgiastic bloodletting of the grand finale’s Manson Family attack to be revisionist catharsis or sadistic bad taste, Brandy does her job and then some, latching onto the hippie assailants with swift brutality. Quentin Tarantino likes to build suspense by hiding an ace in the hole, a concealed gun or a spy under the floorboards. Pitiless and ferocious behind her innocent snout, Brandy is Cliff’s ace.
24. Moses, Dogville
This list collects good dogs and bad dogs aplenty, but Lars von Trier’s severe parable about the savagery of American society contributes the lone metaphorical dog. On the run from gangsters, a wanderer seeks refuge in a seemingly friendly town that gradually takes advantage of her predicament until she’s forced into abject slavery. People are nasty creatures, von Trier tells us, and he puts a fine point on it with the final shot turning Moses from a Brecht-styled chalk outline into a corporeal animal. After the mob catches up to our subjugated heroine only to slaughter the villagers on her behalf, she spares only Moses, the rage in his barking deemed justifiable and pure. (Beneath the conceptual flourishes lies the simple conclusion that he lost his bone. Unlike people, he knows not what he does.) However brief his appearance, he plays a significant role in the subtextual workings of a dense avant-garde allegory, morphing into a symbol for the state of nature corrupted by our crass humanity.
23. Hooch, Turner and Hooch
The most crucial element in any buddy cop movie is the dynamic of the central pairing, which lays a foundation of difference and tension: a graying racist and a sternly principled minority, a grizzled lifer and a naïve rookie, a by-the-book rule-follower and a loose cannon. SoCal detective Scott Turner and his recently slain friend’s orphaned Dogue de Bordeaux make for a delightfully odd couple, challenging Tom Hanks’s bachelor immaturity with the responsibility that pet ownership thrusts upon him. The ‘man-child grows up’ trope often saddles its fratty lone wolf with a baby, but this surprisingly sensitive (and lucrative) comedy treats Hooch more like a grown-up rather than a puppy, right down to his noble final scene. His hyperacute sense of smell makes him a natural for investigative work, but the film respects him for the strength of his convictions most of all.
22. Teddy the Wonder Dog, Teddy at the Throttle
The studios of Hollywood’s silent era lived and died on the wattage of their stars, and Mack Sennett’s low-budget comedy factory was no different. Adroit comedienne Mabel Normand set hearts ablaze, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle split sides with his slapstick, and the Great Dane lovingly nicknamed “Keystone Teddy” commanded the same celebrity as any of them. (Per reports from cast and crew on set at the time, he comported himself with all the professionalism of his human colleagues.) In the 24-minute short that bore his name and cemented his stardom, Teddy saved a young Gloria Swanson from an oncoming train, about thirty years before she’d be immortalized in Sunset Boulevard, and then dragged the villain to justice by the coat. With tireless pep, Teddy exemplified the dog’s inbred aptitude for silent performance, a gestural style of acting perfectly suited to a four-legged thespian unencumbered by language.
21. Balto, Balto
In the early ’90s, Amblin’s handful of animated productions had to squeeze between the Scylla of Disney’s second coming and the Charybdis of Pixar’s meteoric rise, but the millennial children reared on Balto hold a special place in their heart for the scrappy also-ran. The gray-maned wolfdog really did lead a sled run through the frigid Alaskan territory to deliver a life-saving shipment of diphtheria serum back in 1925, a profile in courage dramatized with help from Kevin Bacon as the can-do canine. Though the white voice actor makes a somewhat counterintuitive choice for a character defined by his complicated relationship to his own mixed-race heritage, his arc delivers an unambiguous lesson to young viewers struggling to find where they fit in between identities. As he makes it to Nome, Balto also arrives at the eternal wisdom that being different makes you cool and that learning where you came from can be an empowering, enriching journey.
20. Bruno, The Triplets of Belleville
Sylvain Chomet’s charming comedy traffics in caricature, from a France where cyclists subsist on an IV drip of Cabernet to an America populated by the rich and obese. Bruno, a loyal training partner since puppyhood to a hopeful Tour de France champion named Champion, was likewise designed with an eye to exaggeration: a boulder of a belly sits atop wobbling spindly extremities, his feebleness matching his beady eyes even tinier against his oversized nose. He fits right in with the movie, a Jazz Age throwback that privileges wordless physical comedy over dialogue, as clownish and stoically absurd as Charlie Chaplin. Bruno tags along on a mission to rescue the kidnapped Champion, and yet we get the clearest view of his interiority in the early scenes where he farts around the house. He eats, howls at the train that runs by his window, has the occasional surrealistic anxiety dream about it. Seems like a pretty good life.
19. Slinky Dog, Toy Story
Jim Varney annoyed the bejesus out of America in the commercials, films, and short-lived TV series featuring the excitable Ernest P. Worrell, but he saved a lot of face as Andy’s coiled-up plaything. The primitive computer animation’s weird smoothness — though differentiating the texture of his leathery ears against his plastic body was impressive, for 1995 — does nothing to detract from Slink’s overall lovability, nor does his gravelly Texan twang. When a miscommunication makes it look like jealous cowboy Woody has offed the hot new spaceman in the toy chest, only Woody’s best gal Bo Peep and the unshakably devoted Slink believe in his innocence. Whether orchestrating a daring escape or just trying to keep up morale, he’s the one you want by your side. (Just don’t tell him if there’s bad news. Sweetly simple-minded, he will immediately yell “BAD NEWS?!” for all to hear.)
18. The wiener dog, Wiener-Dog
A wicked misanthropic spirit runs through Todd Solondz’s episodic black comedy, a romp of cruelty that touches upon Down syndrome, meth addiction, professional failure, amateur bombing, and cancer. A viewer spends the entire run time waiting for something unspeakable to happen to the chipper, unbothered Dachshund that connects the vignettes like the abused mule of Au Hasard Balthazar, but he’s a tenacious little fighter. As disappointment and tragedy swirl around the human characters (an ensemble including indie darlings-turned-megastars Greta Gerwig and Kieran Culkin), he just keeps on trucking, barely aware of the manifold bitternesses of everyday life. In time, his beatific inner peace becomes a mean joke, underscoring the assorted psychological agonies of those around him. His smooth brain becomes aspirational to those tormented by their own neuroses; if he doesn’t know how to heel or stay out of the road, he doesn’t know how to be depressed either.
17. Copper, The Fox and the Hound
Maybe it’s the Mickey Mouse–ish eyes, maybe it’s the aggressive wholesomeness of Disney’s branding, but something has made the memory of this ’80s classic far gentler than its reality. A revisit through adult eyes reveals an affecting and often melancholic depiction of the delicate friendships that flower between children, who in this case happen to be a fox and dog. They fight nurture and nature as they rebel against the families raising them to be born nemeses, their naïveté tested by time. It’s meaningfully shocking when a fully grown Copper (voiced by a 30-year-old Kurt Russell) returns changed after a summer away with hunting instincts activated, just one expression of the moody, mercurial quality in those emotionally unruly kid years. The mutual acts of life-saving clemency that bookend the climax pack such a wallop because even though they involve talking critters, these fragile frenemies feel real.
16. Cujo, Cujo
It’s not often that a film casts man’s best friend as the bad guy, and when it does, there’s always some redemptive rationalization revealing that humankind started it. Stephen King, as proven in this 1983 thriller that puts a mother and son at the mercy of a rabid St. Bernard, harbors no such sympathy for our pooch pals. In a deliciously ironic turning of the tables, the Homo sapiens are trapped in a hot car while a tiger-size predator prowls in wait, gone mad with the lust to kill. There’s little more to Cujo than that, though he may have once been a good boy, his primal single-mindedness is the key to his terrifying presence. He’s a perversion of the laws of nature; the infection from a diseased bat overrides his natural behaviors and transforms him into a demonic version of himself, a true monster yanking on the food chain as if playing tug-of-war. He may be the only dog in the annals of the seventh art to leave viewers thinking “phew!” after he’s murdered.
15. Air Bud, Air Bud
Yes, yes, the reasoning of “ain’t no rule says a dog can’t play basketball” has a thick-skulled kind of genius to it. And yes, “He Sits. He Stays. He Shoots. He Scores” is a terrific tagline. But the deeper appeal of the golden retriever going hard in the paint requires no ironic remove to appreciate; he appears to young Josh when he’s most needed, just as the youngster has lost his father and relocated to a town where he doesn’t know a soul. More than mere hooping, Air Bud’s real skill lies in his ability to realize the potent boyish fantasy of “what if the dog I think of as a best friend could actually do all the things I’d do with an actual friend?” It’s all funneled back into a conventional sporting underdog narrative — and in a more literal sense than usual — but the sentimental underpinnings aren’t nearly as silly as the sight of a dog-body squeezed into a basketball pinny.
14. Benji, Benji
As Satchel the guileless Shar Pei declares in the comic strip Get Fuzzy, “Benji is every dog. Benji represents all that is good and noble in us dogs. If you make fun of Benji, you ridicule all of dog culture!” He’s not totally wrong, either. Benji falls into a populous lineage of helpful dogs somewhere around the center, neither as wild nor tame as many of his wet-nosed brethren. “People like Lassie, they liked Rin Tin Tin, but people love Benji,” said director Joe Camp, a bit further into hyperbole, though the handsome box office receipts from the five-film series (Benji celebrates Christmas! Benji goes to Greece! Benji meets Chevy Chase and Omar Sharif!) go a way toward backing him up. Benji’s ordinary screen presence — in his shoestring-budget movie vehicle, he mostly shows off his ability to walk back and forth on command — makes him remarkable, a paradox intuitively understood by anyone who’s fallen in love with a stranger’s mutt just for standing on the sidewalk.
13. Hachi, Hachikō Monogatari/Hachi: A Dog’s Tale
That one episode of Futurama borrowed its devastating power from the true story of an Akita who spent nine patient years waiting at a subway station for the return of its master who had already passed away. This crushing (non)human interest story from the ’20s inspired two films, one from its native Japan and an American remake twentyish years later, with two contrasting takes on the built-in pathos. The original plays it a little more reserved where the Hollywood version tugs harder on the heartstrings. The former offers a pastoral vision of the interwar Japanese suburbs while the latter’s main draw is watching Richard Gere tend to a darling puffball for 100 minutes. Whatever their respective merits, they both cherish Hachi for his undying dedication past the point of reason, seizing the stuffed-animal-looking cuteness machine as a manifestation of persistent grief. He represents the pieces of our loved ones we can never let go; tellingly, the American version ends on a hopeful note, with the adoption of a newborn puppy to fill the space left by Hachi after he joins his beloved papa.
12. Beethoven, Beethoven
A much-needed antidote to all those movies about the soul-affirming benefits of dog parenting, this family comedy contends that caring for a pet is in fact hell and pins its action on a test of how much an average man can take before he’s broken. Rightly pegged by a friend of mine as “the Uncle Buck of house pets,” the sloppy, slobbery St. Bernard cuts a swath of chaos through the once-tidy home of the Newtons with galumphing abandon. He ruins dinner, he destroys every possession you’ve ever loved, but dammit, one look into those droopy eyes and you can’t help a minimum of affection for the big galoot. Even if he’s a headache, anybody with a boorish relative knows that such personalities are our headaches and shall accordingly be defended to the last. At least, that’s what we tell ourselves to remain sane.
11. George, Bringing Up Baby
The plot of Howard Hawks’s peerless screwball picture fits its components together with the precision and intricacy of watch gears: a domesticated leopard, an intercostal clavicle from a preserved Brontosaurus skeleton, and an impish Wire Fox Terrier named George. He’s all smiles because he’s hit the dog-with-a-bone jackpot and promptly hides his prehistoric prize from a harried Cary Grant and daffy Katharine Hepburn in the backyard. By leading Hepburn to the location of the all-important collarbone after she follows him for three days, humble George forms the linchpin for the reconciliation between our bickering lovers. Like the flibbertigibbet starlets typical of this period and genre, he whizzes through life without a care for where he goes, a happy havoc that bonds the romantic leads in their messily-ever-after conclusion. He can’t be trained, only surrendered to in all his unpredictable whimsy — a pretty good summary of Hawks’ old-fashioned yet fond view of the fairer sex.
10. Asta, The Thin Man
Skippy the Dog shone as George, but his innate charisma was on fullest display four years earlier, when he aided the hard-drinking, high-living Nick and Nora Charles in their avocational investigations. In the bantering couple’s first screen outing, they sort out a murder case involving an old chum of Nick’s, and they couldn’t have done it without their trusty sidekick. Despite the cowardice that sends him running whenever danger’s afoot, he comes in clutch as an expert sniffer of hidden bodies (Nick and Nora’s gumshoe hunches are no match for his laser-guided sense of smell). Most importantly, he ties a ribbon on the film’s effervescent parting shots: After Nick kicks him out of bed so he can sidle up to Nora in a luxury train’s sleeper car, Georgie shields his virgin eyes with his paws, a sight gag endlessly imitated and never equaled.
9. Chief, Isle of Dogs
Wes Anderson’s stop-motion miracle brings a startling degree of finely honed maturity to the classic dog themes of heroism, friendship, and loyalty, canine concepts that are generally articulated in broad strokes. Chief (voiced with a patrician growl by Bryan Cranston) and his band of cuddly compatriots on the inhospitable Trash Island live by the code of the samurai laid out in the Kurosawa films that influenced Anderson, regarding duty and honor as deadly serious business. De facto alpha Chief leads them on a quest to reunite hardy human Atari with his lost Spots, and in doing so, comes to occupy the position of the boy’s protector. By the time they finally reach their destination, Spots cedes his place at his former owner’s right hand to Chief and goes to be with his family, a gesture of sacrifice and altruism that’s anything but kiddie stuff. Like all of Anderson’s creations, these characters conceal heavy longing and regret beneath stolid exteriors. Their profundity can fit into a two-inch figurine as easily as, say, Jason Schwartzman.
8. Pongo and Perdy, 101 Dalmatians
Maybe picking both halves of the most reproductively active couple in the Disney canon is cheating, but they’re inseparable parts to a single whole. They break out from the dog pack in their anomalous characterization as parents rather than children, well-matched complements in a model marriage; cool dad Pongo shares his easygoing affability with his owner Roger, just as Perdita mirrors the warm, playful grace of hers. Looking out for their 15-strong brood and an additional 84 orphans rescued along the way, they model the virtues of good guardians. They exude a reassurance that everything’s going to be okay for the presumed audience of little ones and demonstrate that the nuclear unit can still be a fun time for the older viewers. Cruella DeVil steals her scenes, but Pongo and Perdy form the moral core of this rollicking family affair.
7. Dug, Up
If you were to X-ray the skull of the breakout talent from Pixar’s South American escapade, I like to think you’d just see one of those little monkey figurines clapping two cymbals together. The brain of the Canis lupus familiaris is laid out in hilariously plain terms via a collar translating barks to speech, generating to-the-point lines like “I have just met you, and I love you” or “I do not like the cone of shame.” Movies tend to anthropomorphize their dogs by projecting recognizably human qualities onto them, but Bob Peterson and Pete Docter’s script embraces the less bestial parts of being an animal. Dug is constantly distracted by the shadow of a squirrel in the corner of his eye. He’s unguarded with adulation and quick to despair whenever his person leaves his sight. Dug is a big dumb dummy that any one of us would jump in front of a zeppelin to defend, and in this respect, he’s perhaps the closest approximation to the real-life dogs on whom we lavish belly scratches.
6. Rin Tin Tin, Where the North Begins
And now, the story of a battle-hardened World War I veteran who decamped to Tinseltown in search of a second act as a day player, his air of rumpled experience eventually lifting him to the A-list as a character actor extraordinaire. His name? Rin Tin Tin. A French-born German shepherd plucked from the front by an American soldier later bumped up to handler and agent, he’d trot up and down the storied Poverty Row open to any gig he could get and finally landed his big break in a Canada-set adventure six-reeler. (Juicy role, too — as “The Wolf-Dog,” he befriends a fur trapper, busts up a frame job, and kills the villain!) Rin Tin Tin was an overnight sensation, drawing profits that brought Warner Bros. back from the brink of bankruptcy and spawning 26 more showcases for Rin Tin Tin’s commanding machismo.
5. Lassie, Lassie Come Home
A short story from Eric Knight in 1938 begat the novel Lassie Come-Home two years later, and then a film adaptation at MGM after another three. The hyphen-free Lassie Come Home turned the majestically maned rough collie into a household name, spun off into six more sequels during the MGM era, reboots from England and the States, and most notably, a mainstay TV series that ran for nineteen seasons from Eisenhower to Nixon. In Fred Wilcox’s pace-setting flagship film, Lassie pals around with a young Roddy McDowall and takes a bite out of U.K. class tensions by rejecting her sale from her kindly blue-collar custodians to a haughty Duke. The camera isn’t afraid of close-ups on Lassie’s face, and actor Pal (in dog drag, one of numerous specimens that would cross gender lines to portray this good girl) rises to the occasion with shockingly expressive emoting. So what if dogs only possess the thoughtfulness we choose to see in them? If so, Lassie made for an exceptional vessel.
4. Lucy, Wendy and Lucy
After tapping her own dog for a minor appearance in her film Old Joy, the great Kelly Reichardt moved Lucy up to marquee status for the following feature, in which Michelle Williams plays a vagabond down and out around the Oregonian outskirts. Wendy and Lucy have precious little more in this world than one another, and when an ill-fated attempt to shoplift dog food tears them asunder, Wendy vows to track down the one presence that makes her feel like she’s got it together. Reichardt works in a style sometimes classified as “slow cinema,” conversant in stillness and silence emphasizing the steady passage of time — all conditions that agree with the unmediated physicality of Lucy, present in the moment and in no rush for anyone. She simply is, and for the placeless Wendy, for whom every day restarts the labor of finding a place to sleep, there’s nothing more difficult.
3. Old Yeller, Old Yeller
Surely there are less traumatizing ways to teach grade schoolers about mortality, but are those ways shot in glorious Technicolor? In Disney stalwart Robert Stevenson’s foray into the Western, the Civil War has just ended, though that’s all far away from the idyllic patch of frontier where the Coates clan has raised a home. Their picturesque settler life needs a dog to be complete, and Old Yeller — so named for his distinctive yelp — proves himself by protecting sons Travis and Arliss from a rogue bear. While the paterfamilias is away herding cattle in Kansas, Old Yeller isn’t so much a stepdad as the dog who stepped up, maintaining order in a territory not yet organized into statehood. From this essential piece of early-boomer nostalgia, innumerable thousands of Americans can recall their tender young hearts first getting pulverized with the excruciating compassion-kill in the final act. The sad tableau reiterates the mournful endings of oaters from Shane to The Searchers, in which the roughness of the Wild West must be disposed of so civilization can follow.
2. Toto, The Wizard of Oz
In the movie dog pantheon, Toto is lodged deepest in the collective cultural memory of the moviegoing public, and for good reason; the Wicked Witch screaming “and your little dog, too!” will ring out in nightmares as long as moving pictures exist. As the pooch allegedly states in the bizarre, first-person-written I, Toto — The Autobiography of Terry, the Dog Who Was Toto, a juicy tell-all with a foreword explaining that the book’s text was found in a lockbox buried in a pet cemetery, making The Wizard of Oz felt like making history. (The terrier also recalls a young Judy Garland as “lovely, not beautiful in that Merle Oberon way, but very, very pretty.”) Just as Dorothy was an impossibly idealized farm girl, she had a dream of a dog, politely remaining in his basket until time came to spring into action. Every piece of their foundational fable has become indelible — and Toto, too? — and Toto, too.
Gromit, The Wrong Trousers
Martin and Lewis. Laurel and Hardy. Wallace and Gromit. No list of history’s great comedic duos would be complete without the mishap-prone cheese aficionado and his anthropomorphic, mute beagle. Gromit tends to play the straight man, forced to convey exasperation with his BFF’s unending hijinks through a combination of emphatic pointing and alarmed eyebrow acting. In the transatlantic success that earned creator Nick Hook an Academy Award, Gromit must foil the scheme of a nefarious penguin to steal a priceless diamond using a pair of remote-controlled robotic pants, to which Wallace remains blissfully oblivious until he’s being held at gunpoint. Their absurd exploits often task Gromit with holding everything together, but he still gets his laughs by pushing his competence to ridiculous extremes; during the climactic train chase contained within the pair’s living room, Gromit lays down tracks in front of him at blinding speed, just fast enough to keep the train he’s riding from derailment. Without a single word, he’s built a comedic persona every bit as rich as Buster Keaton’s stone faces or Jacques Tati’s bumblers. He’s a good boy. Yes, he is!