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Retract Those Claws

Initially, 'Cats & Dogs' was to be animated. Live action meant big changes, starting with the cartoon violence.

July 01, 2001|MICHAEL MALLORY | Michael Mallory is a regular contributor to Calendar

A funny thing happened to Warner Bros.' fur-covered comedy "Cats & Dogs" on its way to theaters. What started out as a moderately budgeted, zany, special-effects, comedy-cum-family film about a continuing, sophisticated war between power-crazed cats and secret agent dogs began to smell like a bona fide summer blockbuster. And while the filmmakers behind "Cats & Dogs" are not complaining about the sudden prominence of their $50-million film, the July 4 holiday release date or the advertising blitz, they do admit to feeling the pressure to perform.

"We set out to make a special, handcrafted movie that people would discover, and now we feel a little bit in the limelight," says producer Chris deFaria. Adds producer Andrew Lazar, "The expectation is now much greater." Expectations and positioning aside, though, this development can be viewed as just the latest stage of evolution for a film that has undergone more transformations than Madonna's image.

For Warner Bros., "Cats & Dogs" represents another push into family entertainment, an area in which the studio, despite the commercial successes of the "Free Willy" franchise and the more recent "See Spot Run," has had an inconsistent record. "We have made a commitment to ramp up our family film production," says Lorenzo di Bonaventura, president of worldwide production for Warner Bros. Pictures. The studio's upcoming youth-family slate includes the animation-live action mix "Osmosis Jones," "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," "Scooby-Doo" and the inevitable "Harry Potter II."

"Cats & Dogs" revolves around a megalomaniac white Persian named Mr. Tinkles (whose dead-ringer resemblance to the pet of perennial James Bond super-villain Ernst Stavros Blofeld is not a coincidence). Mr. Tinkles suffers from delusions of grandeur as he plots to take over the world. Those schemes, however, are continually being thwarted by a fleet of high-tech spy dogs, including a green newcomer named Lou (the beagle voiced by Tobey Maguire). That, however, was not the way the film started out.

The project was initially developed by Warner Bros. Feature Animation as a vehicle for none other than Sylvester the Cat. The first draft of the script also featured Sam Sheepdog, the laconic protagonist of a series of Chuck Jones cartoons from the 1950s (and while Sylvester is gone, Sam has remained as a kind of homage and is voiced in the film by Michael Clarke Duncan). Why the change to digitized live action? "I think Warners saw some opportunity to break ground," John Requa, co-writer, with Glenn Ficarra, of "Cats & Dogs." "They said, 'If you do an animated film, how much attention will it get? But if you do it CG,"' with computer graphics, the possibilities seemed infinite.

After the entire film had been storyboarded for animation, plans were changed to shoot the picture largely in live action, with an array of real dogs and cats, and state-of-the-art digitally animated lip-syncing and facial expressions created by Rhythm & Hues, the shop that pioneered the talking-animal movie genre with 1995's "Babe." "The great thing about the live action was that you had a whole other layer of [thinking], 'Wow, this is happening under our noses,"' says director Lawrence Guterman. "You could achieve what the writers wanted from day one, which is to go home after seeing the movie, look at your dog or cat and think, 'Is something going on that I don't know about?' "

But the transition also presented its share of challenges.

None was so great as translating the cartoon violence from squash-and-stretch animation to live action, or perceived live action. Slamming Sylvester face-first into a telephone pole or singeing him bald with an exploding firecracker is unobjectionably funny in a cartoon, but a comparable scene in a live-action movie with photo-realistic animals is a much dicier proposition.

How did the filmmakers get away with it? Very carefully.

"The way that the guys wrote the script, you never saw any negative consequences to the comedic action, there was never any actual injury," Guterman says. "What undercut the severity of the moment was a joke right afterward, to let everyone know that everything's OK, breathe easy, we're not endangering any animals."

"There were concessions to the live action," DeFaria adds. "We learned in the screening process that we had to go very quickly to a shot of the animal OK [after a gag], like when [canine agent] Buddy hits the tree, you're right on him as he shakes his head with a funny sound effect."

In fact, it was the desire to assure the audience, particularly kids, that no one was really hurt in the film that prevented the filmmakers from editing out the pre-title chase sequence, which establishes the film's 007-meets-Looney-Tunes tone.

"Larry [Guterman] fought for keeping the opening chase sequence, which, purely from the narrative standpoint, is extraneous," DeFaria says, "but it set up a universe of silly gags."

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