I can’t immediately recall the exact moment that Strays randomly cut away to a shot of three squirrels fucking, but I knew then that the movie had won my heart. Josh Greenbaum’s comedy is built around a simple premise, which is that watching animals act and speak in profane ways is inherently hilarious. That premise is solid. What’s more, that premise is true: Animals are animals, and while sweet, family-friendly quests of discovery like The Incredible Journey certainly have their place, sometimes you just have to let a dog hump the couch. Maybe because on some subconscious level, we ourselves probably wish we could hump that couch. If my cat could speak, I doubt he’d be proper and wise; he’d be foul-mouthed and filter-free.
Reggie (voiced by Will Ferrell), the Border terrier protagonist of Strays, is none of those things. Rather, he’s an innocent dolt with a pothead layabout, Doug (Will Forte), for his ostensible owner. Besides being an all-around dirtbag, Doug also blames the dog for the breakup of his most recent relationship and thus wants desperately to be rid of this eager pup. Doug’s increasingly elaborate efforts to lose Reggie by driving him further and further away are ultimately successful, and our hero finds himself lost in the big city where he befriends a pack of strays led by Bug (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a chatty Boston terrier. Once he realizes that Doug meant to get rid of him, Reggie decides to embark on a quest to find his old human and bite his penis off. Bug joins in, along with Maggie (Isla Fisher), an Australian Shepherd with a keen sense of smell, and Hunter (Randall Park), an anxious Great Dane who had dreams of becoming a K-9 but now works as a therapy dog. (He wears a cone not because he’s recovering from anything, but because it makes him feel safe.)
If you’ve seen the trailer, you pretty much know what the movie is: a constant escalation of rudeness with director Greenbaum and writer Dan Perrault trying to one-up themselves from scene to scene. The film’s bits play off on familiar notions like dogs’ fear of fireworks or their hatred of the mailman, not to mention the idea that you own what you pee on. (This does lead to a particularly funny bonding scene where the dogs pee on each other.) The story doesn’t want to surprise us so much as it wants to live down to our crude expectations. At its best, as with the aforementioned squirrel-a-trois, Strays jolts us with randomness. But most of the time, it’s pleasingly, predictably deranged. Then, just when it seems like it might start to head in a more treacly direction, it turns right back around and gets even nastier. With all its vulgarity, the movie plays to your inner nine-year-old, even though nine-year-olds probably shouldn’t see it.
But beneath all the shit and dick jokes, Strays is also artfully done. The dogs are a combination of real animal performances and VFX, especially when it comes to mouth movements. It’s fairly seamless; the characters seem to move and act mostly like real animals, which in turn makes the profanity that much funnier. Ferrell is an old hand at playing kind-hearted, naïve innocents. This man was Elf, after all. He brings some of that same wide-eyed, childlike energy to the voice of Reggie. Foxx has always been great at playing confident motor-mouths, and he gives Bug a punchy grandiosity that feels just right. For all the iron-clad hilarity of its premise, Strays wouldn’t work nearly as well if it weren’t so well cast.
Strays seeks to fill the shoes of previous movies like Good Boys (they’re kids … and they’re profane!) and Sausage Party (they’re food … and they’re profane!), but it can’t quite reach the heights of those films, which actually had some thematic oomph to them. (Sausage Party in particular worked its way to a pretty damning exploration of religious belief.) In its sly nods to noble-animal movies and previous journeys of discovery, Strays feels more like a spoof, the kind of movie that only exists in the light of other movies. That’s okay. Its inspired depravity is more than enough for a few good belly laughs, and really, what more does one want from Hollywood in the middle of August?
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