When the first Superman ushered in the era of superhero blockbusters in 1978, the movie's tagline assured audiences that "you will believe a man can fly." Disney hasn't revived the slogan, but with the seamless visual effects of Beverly Hills Chihuahua, you will believe a dog can talk. This was probably not the goal that CGI artists have pursued for the last three decades, but the live action talking animal movie has finally shaken all its cartoony vestiges and adopted a new naturalism.
While long, intricate conversations between dogs now appear perfectly normal, BH Chihuahua is at heart a farcical comedy of heightened reality. So while the dogs are grounded, the humans are flighty, especially cosmetics magnate Vivian Ashe (Jamie Lee Curtis), whose prized pooch receives more attention, affection and designer duds than a spoiled child. Chloe (Drew Barrymore's baby-doll voice is a perfect fit) has come to expect nothing less than being carted around to spa appointments and hosting poolside playdates.
Vivian's outlandish spending on Chloe's over the top outfits (and diamond necklace) is woefully out of step with our recessionista era, but director Raja Gosnell gleefully makes his point, portraying a canine princess who doe not realize the price she's paying for being a lap dog. She not only snubs love-struck Papi (George Lopez), the Mexican Chihuahua owned by landscaper Sam Cortez (Manolo Cardona), but when Vivian's irresponsible niece, Rachel (Piper Perabo), takes Chloe along on her Baja California vacation, the petulant pup wanders away from their beachside hotel and is promptly dog-napped.
Chihuahua was shot primarily in Mexico, and as soon as Chloe heads south of the border, the film shifts gears, focusing less on putting on the dog and more on teaching an old dog new tricks. This haughty Chihuahua meets mutts who know about depravation and loss, particularly former K-9 cop Delgado (Andy Garcia), a German shepherd who doggedly sticks with Chloe as she goes from yappy and complaining to howling with pride.
These digitally enhanced canines are worlds away from the clunky animated Great Dane of Gosnell's live action Scooby Doo movies, and there's an irrepressible joy wagging this dog's tale. Even the CGI creations — a pack rat and iguana — feel vibrant and alive, the inspired duo of Cheech Marin and Paul Rodriguez impishly inhabiting these comedic con artists.
Simultaneously mind-bogglingly surreal and utterly charming, Beverly Hills Chihuahua has bark and bite.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].