Ever since Aesop, putting words into the mouths of animals has been a sure-fire entertainment gimmick. In fables and fairy tales, talking owls, foxes, and pigs imparted wisdom and warnings; in modern practice — that is, in movies and cartoons — their talk is usually played for laughs. This intentional fallacy probably makes us feel more secure about our own place in the world — there’s a certain comfort in the idea that the beasts of the field think and feel the way we do.
Or, sometimes, better. Recent talking-animal movies come in two varieties: those, like Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey and Milo and Otis, in which the animals mostly speak with each other; and those in which they talk to or about humans. In the latter breed of movie, if the animals aren’t actually smarter, they’re certainly smart-aleckier. Look Who’s Talking Now! (1993, Columbia TriStar, PG-13, priced for rental) takes its cues from this second category. The Look Who’s Talking movies were originally predicated on the notion that kids’ adorable mumbles and chirps are really screens for snotty wisecracks they’re saving until they can speak, but the series ran out of excuses for keeping its tots preverbal. So, time to go back to talking animals who use their power to speak and think not for interaction but for sarcastic commentary and one-liners.
The father of this species is Francis (1949, MCA/Universal), in which a gabby mule (voiced by character actor Chill Wills) comes to the aid of dopey soldier Peter Stirling (Donald O’Connor). The hook was simple: Not only could the mule talk, he was brighter than his ostensible master. For some reason, Francis spoke only to his clueless patron, and a good deal of the first Francis film focuses on O’Connor’s attempt to get his stubborn new friend to chat with others. This seemingly limited idea was executed with a briskness and amiability that made it an unexpected hit, spawning six more films that placed Francis in ever more improbable scenarios. Arthur Lubin, who directed the first six Francis movies, later brought the talking-animal idea to TV as the creator of Mr. Ed, arguably the most famous of equine conversationalists.
The talking animal heard only by the audience caught the ear of both children and adults with 1980’s Oh! Heavenly Dog (FoxVideo), which teamed then-hot comedy star Chevy Chase with then-hot mutt Benji for the tale of a gumshoe, reincarnated in the body of a dog, who tries to solve his own murder. The initially disgruntled soul learns to appreciate his canine status when he finds it’s an advantage in getting information: He has fewer reservations about going through garbage cans, for example. Despite its dicey metaphysics, the movie is breezy fun, and more than any other film, it set the style for what would become the most successful talking-anything series to come out of Hollywood.
In Look Who’s Talking Now!, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley play the parents of toddler Mikey, who falls for a mutt named Rocks at the same time that Dad’s hotsy-totsy new boss (Husbands and Wives vamp Lysette Anthony) bestows a poodle on Mikey’s little sister. Of course, it’s hate at first sight. In the Look Who’s Talking tradition, the animals are given superstar voices — the mutt’s got Danny DeVito, the poodle’s got Diane Keaton. But the filmmakers aren’t content to take their gimmick and run with it. They embellish the concept with sub-Roseanne family interaction (”Can I kill her?” Mikey asks regarding his sibling; ”Not before dinner, honey,” Mom replies), fantasy sequences that fail miserably, and celebrity cameos (Charles Barkley, whoopee). It’s all quite desperately witless — DeVito’s best lines consist of Wayne’s World-speak. (It’s hard to imagine that the actor didn’t feel self- conscious mouthing ”Not!” and ”schwing.”) For the exceptionally unlikely climax, the heretofore troublesome mutt gets to prove his worth by fighting off a pack of wolves, most of whom, in a baldly racist turn, speak in urban African-American patois. That the filmmakers came up with the idea of having a wolf snarl, ”Yo mama,” and then thought they could compensate by having another wolf speak in a ”white” voice, is indicative of the incredible crassness that animates the movie. And the moral of this decidedly non-Aesopian tale? Lie down with dogs like Look Who’s Talking Now! and you’ll end up with fleas.
Look Who’s Talking Now!: D-; Francis: C; Oh! Heavenly Dog: B-