In 1954, cartoonist Brad Anderson made comic strip history by sketching out an anarchic, dopey Great Dane, whom he named Marmaduke. In the decades since, people loved Marmaduke for all of the obvious reasons: His slapstick adventures are effortlessly funny, his I-just-want-to-do-good ethos is naturally endearing and his inherent silliness embodies a kind of freedom to which we all aspire. But more than that, people love Marmaduke because his misgivings are reliable—predictable, even.
And that’s exactly why adapting this character into a film will always be a complicated venture. The effort has been made before. In 2010, Tom Dey directed a live-action Marmaduke, with the dog (he does not speak in the comic strip) voiced by the equally dopey and lovable Owen Wilson. Despite our apparent cultural affinity toward Marmaduke, the film was almost unanimously panned by critics, who denounced it as exhaustingly boring. Herein lies the problem with adapting a newspaper cartoon that is beloved, in part, for its sheer routine. How, exactly, do you turn that repetition into something that’s consistently engaging while still staying true to its delightful, humdrum essence?
This is the challenge facing director Mark A.Z. Dippé as he resuscitates the mischievous pooch a decade after Dey’s famous cinematic flop. Dippé’s computer-animated film stars Pete Davidson as Marmaduke (inspired casting, I know—I’ll get back to that shortly), the well-intentioned Great Dane who just can’t seem to get it right! Within the first few minutes, he finds himself committing a healthy number of faux pas, not least of which is cannonballing into a swimming pool to escape a bee, flooding his neighborhood, and subsequently wrecking his brother’s birthday party.
Some might see old Marmaduke as past saving. The more ambitious, however, will see him as an exciting challenge—one whose naughtiness can only be reigned in by the most skilled of dog trainers. In Marmaduke, this trainer comes in the form of slick-haired, smooth-talking canine guru Guy Hilton (Brian Hull), who takes it upon himself to undertake the most formidable of all tasks: Teaching Marmaduke to be a good boy, once and for all!
The remainder of the film comprises trials and tribulations galore, Rocky-style training montages and epic journeys of self-discovery. There is nothing about Marmaduke that dares to break the mold. The story is a stale, formulaic retreading of old territory, rife with cliches and a cookie-cutter plot trajectory (i.e. the hero who learns to believe in himself against adversity). While this kind of repetitiveness translates well to the single-serve style of a comic, this is an 88-minute film.
A main contributing factor as to why it doesn’t feel like Marmaduke brings anything new to the character is its slick, overly-clean animation. Everything moves in a highly computerized way throughout the film, which, if anything, takes the soul out of the story; part of what makes the comics so lovable is their messy, idiosyncratic nature. The intentional sloppiness of the comics adds to Marmaduke’s trademark frenetic, chaotic nature. Cleaning his look up in this animated version brings him dangerously close to looking like any old dog.
What we are left with, then, is a by-the-books rendition of a by-the-books cartoon, with just a little of its soul sucked out. Don’t get me wrong—this isn’t to say that what remains doesn’t have its entertaining moments. Quite the contrary. Unsurprisingly, Davidson’s weird and wacky vocal demeanor brings a lot of wittiness to Marmaduke, which, paired with the exaggerated slapstick animation, makes for a charming, captivating protagonist. The rest of the characters aren’t quite as memorable, though David Koechner has his pitch-perfect moments as Phil, the beleaguered patriarch of Marmaduke’s family, and J.K. Simmons nails the conniving villainy of Marmaduke’s snobby, slobbering mutt nemesis Zeus.
But no matter how you slice it, reintroducing a classic character to a new generation is always going to be a challenge. On the one hand, you don’t want to tamper with source material that people know and love, but on the other, you want to justify a revamp by adding some new flavor. What filmmakers seem to have overlooked over the past couple decades, however, is that a story like Marmaduke begs for a new perspective; audiences are craving more nuance than sweet simple comforts. And while Dippé’s Marmaduke is a fun enough viewing experience, it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Why can’t we just leave Marmaduke in the dog house for a little while?
Director: Mark A.Z. Dippé; Youngki Lee, Phil Nibbelink, Matt Philip Whelan (co-directors)
Writers: Byron Kavanagh
Stars: Pete Davidson, J.K. Simmons, David Koechner, Brain Hull
Release Date: May 6, 2022
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.