Homeward Bound but raunchy squanders the writer and the director’s talents.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Talking animals have been an entertainment staple for practically as long as movies have been around. Most classics of the genre, like 1993’s Homeward Bound, aim squarely at children in the audience. Director Josh Greenbaum’s Strays seeks to subvert that approach by weaving dirty jokes and curse words into familiar genre tropes. The result is considerably more grating and unpleasant to watch.
Hopes for Strays were high. Greenbaum’s first feature was the delightful absurd Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, a still infinitely quotable cult classic. He pairs with screenwriter Dan Perrault here. Perrault previously penned Netflix’s American Vandal, arguably the best series about high school since Judd Apatow’s breakout Freaks and Geeks. It seems like they’d make a can’t-miss team. Unfortunately, it proved nearly impossible for their remarkable talents to surmount the film’s unappealing premise.
Their unique comedic voices do shine through in some brief, clever sight gags. For instance, Dennis Quaid (playing himself) checks off a birdwatching list that just reads “Birds” over and over. However, their usual sensibilities feel utterly buried under a deluge of well-trod jokes about poop, pee, and other bodily functions.
Perrault’s Vandal began with the question, “Who drew the dicks?” That was only the jumping-off point, though. Soon the story became a remarkable exploration of the pitfalls of American teen life in the 2010s. Strays, on the other hand, never moves past point A. Instead, it spins its wheels through an interminable series of penis jokes that left many at the advance screening covertly checking their watches. The movie drags through its brief ninety-minute runtime, halting the barrage of jokes about dog genitals only for a few maudlin, cliche scenes about dogs and their owners that feel plucked straight from cutesy schlock like A Dog’s Purpose.
Strays’ premise is a simple one. After his loser abusive owner Doug (a bafflingly miscast Will Forte) abandons him, newly stray dog Reggie (voice of Will Ferrell) meets up with a scrappy street dog, Bug (Jamie Foxx). Bug initiates Reggie into the customs of life as a stray. Then, with the help of two domestic dogs named Maggie (Isla Fisher) and Hunter (Randall Park), they set off on a quest to get revenge. Reggie’s idea is to destroy what he believes Doug values most: his penis.
The dog abuse comprises only about the first ten minutes, but it’s still tough to watch. While the mistreatment depicted isn’t graphic by any stretch of the imagination, it’s such a deeply unfunny subject that one wonders why they tried to find the humor in it at all. The border terrier who plays Reggie is adorable, especially when voiced by Ferrell, who brings his A-game to winsomely play another sweet, naive character, not unlike Buddy from Elf. Despite Greenbaum’s best efforts, watching Doug smack and toss around this trusting little dog doesn’t exactly set a light, funny tone.
[Strays] spins its wheels through an interminable series of penis jokes that left many at the advance screening covertly checking their watches.
Foxx, Fisher, and Park all bring energy and charm to their respective voice roles, significantly elevating the unimaginative foul-mouthed jokes. Josh Gad (Frozen) makes a very funny voice cameo as a Marley and Me-esque “narrator dog” who knows all of his playboy owner’s secrets. It’s a very meta joke that, along with a cute running gag about the dogs’ hatred for the postman, shines as one of the best in the film.
The dogs’ CGI mouths leave something to be desired. While not exactly poorly done, viewers experience the sensation of the dogs’ faces divided. In some shots, the animated mouths feel oddly separate from the flesh-and-blood dog performers. On the other hand, it’s always fun to see the dog actors’ tails wagging happily during scenes of supposed peril.
Strays wanders towards a predictable, feces-soaked finale. Then, just when one might think they’re free, there’s a profoundly unfunny post-credits scene about the perils of getting dog poop in your mouth to match. Despite their goal of creating a talking animal movie for grown-ups, Greenbaum and Perrault have more or less replicated the naughty jokes and rote plot beats from a kids’ feature like Cats and Dogs, just with more swear words. The movie may be rated R, but its potty-centric humor feels best left in middle school.
Strays gets taken for a walk in theatres everywhere on August 18.