Other than the assumption that name recognition will automatically sell movie tickets, what could have possibly inspired a producer, screenwriter, or director to invest their time and energy transforming the insipid one-panel comic strip Marmaduke into a feature-length motion picture? This movie does not answer that question, because nothing about it is inspired, and there's scant evidence any human being put any energy into it.
When advertising exec Phil Winslow (Lee Pace) gets an offer to head the account for a California-based dog-food company, he uproots his wife, three kids, and their beloved Great Dane, Marmaduke (voiced by Owen Wilson), from Kansas to the Sunshine State. Turns out everyone has trouble adjusting, but Dad is too busy to notice. While Marmaduke befriends a group of fellow mutts at the local dog park, he also makes enemies with a group of purebreds who rule the roost. But when a surfing competition created by Phil as an advertising campaign results in Marmaduke becoming the top dog in town, the canine turns his back on his new pals to enjoy the life of a big shot. Soon, thanks to a sinkhole on the freeway, both dad and dog learn the true value of family and friendship.
Right up top, viewers should know this is one of those movies where the animals are all real, but their mouths are animated to move as if they are speaking English, a novelty that wears off before Owen Wilson's familiar Texas twang can finish Marmaduke's opening line. While it's often difficult to fathom how the man who co-wrote a spectacularly literate and witty film like The Royal Tenenbaums could be reduced to spouting horrific dog-themed puns, it's the often-great William H. Macy who throws into alarming clarity how atrocious the whole thing is. There's a scene where, with as much gravitas as he can muster, Macy's character tells Phil that he must get Marmaduke under control. Finally, someone created a line so ridiculous and unplayable that not even Macy can make it sound authentic -- the talking dogs are more believable than the humans.
There's one aspect of the behind-the-scenes crew that did do an excellent job on the set -- the animal wranglers. The obviously well-trained four-legged thespians do double takes, stunts, and plaintive gazes into the camera with all the skill of old-time silent-movie stars. Sadly, they aren't silent, and pretty soon Fergie or a Wayans brother or George Lopez fires off yet another stale one-liner, or a cultural reference so out of date you'll think the script was written a decade ago.
Marmaduke leaves you with one burning question -- how many film reels will fit into a pooper-scooper?