There are a few givens in today's kids' films — that there will be at least one flatulence gag and an overabundance of pop-culture humor intended to appease parents who have been dragged along to see it.
However, there are ways for filmmakers to compensate for these deficiencies, such as having funny gags and appealing — or, in this case, adorable — characters. Fortunately, "Cats & Dogs" has plenty of both.
Some cat lovers might disagree with the film's contention that cats are evil manipulators and that dogs are the good guys, but the film is so good-natured, so goofy, that even they might not mind.
Besides, this live-action spoof of both spy movies and talking-animal pictures isn't nearly as lowbrow as most of its competition (especially the extremely crude "Dr. Dolittle" sequel, which somehow managed to get a PG).
As for the "Cats & Dogs" plot, it's not exactly high-concept, but it is silly enough to be amusing. It seems that hordes of evil cats, led by the fiendish Mr. Tinkles (the voice of Sean Hayes, from TV's "Will and Grace"), are trying to reassert their position as Man's Best Friend.
At the same time, a human scientist, Professor Brody (Jeff Goldblum), is trying to develop a serum that will "cure" human allergies to dogs — effectively ruining the cats' world-domination plans.
So these feline saboteurs do their best to steal the formula. But standing in their way is a spy network of dogs, including reluctant hero Lou (voiced by Tobey Maguire), a beagle puppy recently adopted by the Brody family.
Though he has no experience, Lou is given an accelerated training program by decorated canine agent Butch (Alec Baldwin). At the same time, the puppy also tries to win over his new human master, the Brodys' preteen son Scott (Alexander Pollock).
Again, this is not deep material, but director Lawrence Guterman keeps the action brisk and never lingers after the dud gags (there are a couple of them).
But what really makes the film work are the performances, particularly the guest voices — besides Maguire and Baldwin, there's Susan Sarandon, Jon Lovitz, Charlton Heston and Joe Pantoliano.
The best of the bunch, though, is probably Hayes, whose megalomaniacal rants sometimes sound like ad-libs — and very funny ones.
"Cats & Dogs" is rated PG for slapstick violence, some vulgar humor (flatulence humor, mild by today's standards) and scattered use of mild profanity. Running time: 85 minutes.