The premise behind Universal Studios upcoming puppy movie, Strays, is that it is nothing like its saccharine predecessors. Where the canines in those films were cute, cuddly, and adorable, the foul-mouthed, overly sexualized pups in Strays are dirty, nasty, and rough around the edges. Their owners, too, are mean and repugnant. The clear implication is that the old dog movie formula is corny and lame, while Strays is different—irreverent and cool.
But the Hollywood of 2023 rarely exhibits the courage of its supposedly insubordinate convictions. Films for popular audiences seldom stick to their rebellious conceit, devolving instead into much of the same cheesiness they purport to decry. Strays is no exception to that unfortunate trend, which reduces the movie to nothing but a ragged, uninteresting version of the formula it sets out to subvert.
The film, directed by Josh Greenbaum (Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar), opens with the naïve protagonist Reggie (voiced by Will Ferrell) suffering verbal and physical abuse by sadistic owner Doug (Will Forte). Doug is a man-boy loser who smokes pot all day, has no job, cheats on his girlfriends, depends on his mom, plays with himself constantly, and—the ultimate sin—is very mean to the dog he never wanted. Doug eventually abandons Reggie far from home, and the pup falls into a band of, what else, misfit stray dogs that all have a complex and tortured relationship with their human owners.
The group is led by Bug (Jamie Foxx), a streetwise Terrier who teaches Reggie the “rules” of being a stray (essentially—you can do whatever you want). It also includes Maggie (Isla Fisher), a beautiful dog abandoned by her superficial owner for a younger, cuter version, and Hunter (Randall Park), a dog whose fears and insecurities led him to fail the K-9 police academy. The dogs are all cynical and jaded, and wise up the unsuspecting Reggie to the fact that Doug was really a cruel, despondent owner. Hell bent on revenge, Reggie enlists his newfound friends to find Doug and bite off his…favorite toy.
Strays is acceptable enough as far as that setup goes. The script by TV screenwriter Dan Perrault, whose off-color jokes mainly do not land. The central, repeated joke—that the pups are “Pee FFs”—falls entirely flat but is nevertheless at least diluted by a constant stream of penis, sex, poop, and other potty-type jokes.
Producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller—Oscar winners for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse—have clearly had better ideas, but their desire to spoof the entirely cliched “cute dog” movies is respectable on its own rights. Classics like A Dog’s Journey and Marley & Me all face skewering, including with an amusing cameo by Dennis Quaid.
But even assuming one can get past that inevitably infantile and simplistic humor, Strays is a fundamental disappointment, one it telegraphs like the aroma of dog litter. As soon as Bug sets up his “I hate humans” creed, one can see exactly where this particular dog journey is headed. And even though the funny jokes pile on along the way, so too do the uninventive and over-the-top sequences, including one featuring a rogue hawk and another featuring an entire dog pound of pups defecating on a hapless guard. To travel this long, childish journey just to get to exactly where you think you will end up—in that very place that Strays purports to skewer from the beginning—is particularly obnoxious.
Strays does manage to showcase mostly realistic animation sequences that blend real dog movements with fake ones, which is saying a lot considering the aerial and terrestrial acrobatics the fearsome foursome is spun through. But good animation and a handful of admittedly entertaining quips are not enough to put the movie back on track after getting lost—if you promise the audience a fundamental reimagining of the dog movie formula, closing the proceedings with humans loving the puppies while the dogs take on new stray acolytes is not the way to do it. Ferrell and Foxx are funny enough—though they are asked to simply cuss and insult consistently, meaning the level of difficulty is extremely low.
By the time all the sofas are humped, all the lampposts are pissed upon, and all the poop is slung, Strays has deviated markedly and predictably from its supposed rebellious nature. These dogs, as foul-mouthed and penis-obsessed as they seem to be, just want to be loved and cuddled like the dogs in those other movies that Strays purports to mock. What is left, then, is nothing but crass, mostly uninteresting humor, and no good reason to deviate from your plan to wait for this one on streaming.
Strays is a Universal Studios film coming to theaters August 18, 2023.