Dogs are silly, funny animals. This is something that people have known for thousands and thousands of years, but it’s a fact that’s particularly been made apparent in the internet age, with social media sites featuring an endless stream of videos from pet owners who catch their canine companions acting weird. They display unique personalities, but there are also universal bizarre behaviors that have been well documented and mocked – from their need to walk in tight circles before lying down, to scooting their butt on the floor, to humping just about anything.
Release Date: August 18, 2023
Directed By: Josh Greenbaum
Written By: Dan Perrault
Starring: Will Ferrell, Jamie Foxx, Isla Fisher, Randall Park, and Will Forte
Rating: R for pervasive language, crude and sexual content, and drug use
Runtime: 93 minutes
The pervasiveness of this kind of internet content is a big hindrance to Strays, the new film from director Josh Greenbaum. The movie has no shortage of ambition, as it executes its feature-length story and action with four real dogs as its protagonists, but it ends up being more impressive than funny. It has its comedic bright spots, including a satisfying finale, but it relies far too heavily on pointing at commonly recognized idiosyncrasies and aims consistently at low-hanging fruit. Far too much of it is comparable to a live-action remake of The Secret Life Of Pets (albeit with more obscene language and behavior).
Written by Dan Perrault, Strays tells the tale of Reggie (Will Ferrell), a naïve, optimistic Border Terrier trapped unknowingly trapped in an abusive relationship. His owner is Doug (Will Forte), a shiftless asshole who adopted Reggie when he was in a relationship and blames the dog for his breakup. Doug regularly tries to get rid of his pet by driving him off to a far location, tossing a tennis ball, and leaving, but Reggie always just gets the ball and comes back to his home in the suburbs.
Frustrated by the pup’s regular returns, Doug eventually decides to drive miles away to the nearest city and drop Reggie off in a dark alley – which is where he ends up meeting a Boston Terrier named Bug (Jamie Foxx) who changes his life. He not only comes to understand that his owner is a horrible person but also the joys of being a stray. He learns to appreciate his new freedom, but he also decides that his relationship with his owner is not quite over. With help from Bug as well as a Great Dane named Hunter (Randall Park) and an Australian Shepherd named Maggie (Isla Fisher), Reggie makes it his mission to return back to Doug and bite his penis off.
The comedy in Strays is too dependent on references to humorous dog behaviors and doesn't have enough original material.
As far as revenge plots go, Strays is packed with a winner, and it’s at its best when it is heavily leaning into its R-rating – but there is a shortage of material in that department and it doesn’t have much in the way for fresh observational humor. The introduction of Bug, as an example, sees the tiny hound face off with a Rottweiler and a Dobermann, and he ends up scaring the bigger dogs off by acting like a psychopath. Anyone who has ever seen a canine interaction like this before in real life can smile in recognition, but it’s not made uproariously funny no matter how crass Jamie Foxx gets in his voice over.
Most of the movie operates with this kind of humor, and it’s diverting, but not hilarious. It eventually feels like there was a checklist involved in the construction of the script, with various bits and references peppered into the characters’ journey from the city back to Doug’s house. Humping things? Check. Eating vomit? Check. Hating the mailman? Check. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t overplay the cliché dogs vs. cats dynamic, but it is still used as the source of a joke (as though the filmmakers just couldn’t help themselves).
The bright spots come when the film moves away from that kind of material, like with the penis biting plot and a bit involving what Bug describes as a “Narrator Dog,” but they get buried in all of the tropes. The talented cast does what it can to add to the comedy, and they do successfully imbue their characters with specific personalities, but it only gets the movie so far.
Strays is an impressive feat of filmmaking and is able to do surprising and awesome things with the canine stars.
It’s possible that some of the better comedic bits conceptualized behind the scenes ended up not being feasible without an over-reliance on visual effects, but if Strays does one thing particularly well, it’s showcasing the shocking capabilities of canine performers. Along with some skillful cinematography and editing, it’s remarkable just how natural it looks when two or more of the dogs are in a scene having a conversation. The voice-over performances never feel non-diegetic, as the animal actors are always engaged in any given scene, and their actions appear realistic instead of either rehearsed or incidental.
In its own way, Strays affirms the old Hollywood adage about working with animals (and children). In this case, it’s not an actor who gets outshined by a furry co-star, but the film’s comedy sensibilities in general. It’s 93 minutes of movie magic, but far from the funniest feature of 2023.
NJ native who calls LA home and lives in a Dreamatorium. A decade-plus CinemaBlend veteran who is endlessly enthusiastic about the career he’s dreamt of since seventh grade.