When did Disney abandon the idea that family movies ought to entertain adults as well as children? Pixar has always understood that a “Ratatouille” or a “WALL-E” or even a “Cars” should hold kids' attention with color, movement, slapstick and music, yet have a sophisticated extra layer of humor, nostalgia and commentary for their parents.
But Disney is now content with the likes of the wholly inoffensive, uninventive “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” whose canine antics will divert undemanding youngsters and adults who believe the simple absence of profanity, sex and violence counts as a virtue in these degraded times. (To be fair, nobody gets kicked in the groin or has to deal with bodily substances, and that does signify restraint for any major studio nowadays.)
Two stories run parallel through “Chihuahua.” A millionaire's gadabout niece (Piper Perabo) falls in love with her aunt's Latino gardener (Michael Urie) as they look for the lost title character in Mexico. And Chloe, the missing canine (voiced by Drew Barrymore), goes through a series of dangerous adventures, from a dogfight to a leap from a moving freight train. She's accompanied by a former police dog named Delgado, who was thrown off the force when a psychosomatic problem made him lose his sense of smell. (Andy Garcia sleeptalks so dully in the part that he sounds embarrassed to have taken it.)
The dogs have all the fun. Papi (George Lopez), the gardener's chihuahua, loves Chloe, who spurns him as a laborer beneath her notice. He helps his owner locate her and provides comic relief, saying “Don't make me get all Mexican on you!” and “We're Mexican, not Mexican't.” He interacts with a cunning rat (Cheech Marin) and a phlegmatic iguana (Paul Rodriguez), who get trapped under a piñata at one point and wreak havoc in a convenience store. But dognappers who want to sell Chloe back to her owner unleash the film's one scary villain: a Doberman pinscher named El Diablo (Edward James Olmos), who tracks her relentlessly.
There's an uplifting message about not letting size or fear prevent you from achieving great things, delivered by a wild chihuahua (opera tenor Plácido Domingo). But there are other messages, too, including one I didn't like: Rich women in Beverly Hills needn't think twice about draping doggie-woggies with diamond bracelets by Harry Winston. I guess they wouldn't find any people needing financial help around L.A., especially as all the poor peasants seem to live in Mexico – where they're poor but happy, of course.
Performances are rather beside the point in a movie where dogs carry the acting burden, but Perabo is especially bland. (Charlotte's Ali Hillis has a small role as one of the friends who goes with her to the Mexican beach.) Lopez has zest, Marin and Rodriguez work well together, Domingo brings dignity to his non-singing film debut – at the age of 67! – but Barrymore doesn't sound snooty enough in the beginning or sweet enough at the end.
By the way, director Raja Gosnell has now made two movies that featured an animated dog as the main character (“Scooby-Doo” and “Scooby-Doo 2”) and two movies that might be described as “dogs” (“Home Alone 3” and “Yours, Mine and Ours”). This is the first of his pictures to belong to both categories.