Ay, Chihuahua! Beverly Hills Chihuahua is better than its premise and trailer might lead you to believe. But not by much.
The film opens in, where else, Beverly Hills—a world of perfectly manicured lawns and people, of glittering couture and gleaming cars, of plastic credit cards and even more plastic bodies. It's also the place where people spend more on their dogs' wardrobes, clothing and jewelry than the entire gross national product of Morocco.
This is Lassie's world: all the dogs understand humans and some humans even speak a little dog.
When we first meet the Chihuahua Chloe (voice of Drew Barrymore), decked out in a gleaming Harry Winston diamond collar, Italian pink leather booties and a frilly pink skirt, she is being dropped off at a doggie beauty parlor for a spa treatment. It isn't long before we see her back at home for a "play date"—lying out by the pool with her favorite dog pals all clad in an assortment of bikinis, dresses, berets and sunglasses. (As ridiculous as the scene looks and sounds, it would be funnier if it weren't also all too often reality.)
Chloe is one pampered pooch. She spends her days doted on by her wealthy owner Vivian (Jamie Lee Curtis), dining on steak and lying about on silk cushions. Chloe is so wrapped up in her over-indulged, pampered life that she barely even notices those outside her circle of coddled friends, including the amorous, working-class Papi (voice of George Lopez), who belongs to Sam (Manolo Cardona), Vivian's landscape gardener. Somehow, despite her rebuffs and haughty condescension, Papi remains devoted to his puppy Prima Donna.
When Vivian has to go to Europe on business and the regular dog sitter calls in sick, Chloe is left in the reluctant care of Vivian's flaky niece Rachel (Piper Perabo). Rachel and her friends decide to take a spontaneous trip to Mexico, and have no choice but to bring Chloe along. Unluckily, they promptly lose her, and to make matters worse, Chloe is dognapped by a canine fighting ring who is convinced that she will bring a handsome reward.
Chloe escapes from her captors with the help of an enigmatic, street-smart German shepherd named Delgado (voice of Andy Garcia) and together they set out from Mexico City to find Chloe a way back home. It is a perilous journey, bereft of Rodeo Drive boutiques. Here, on the mean streets of Mexico, Chloe will need to reply on unexpected newfound friends and an inner strength she never knew she had.
Unbeknownst to her, Chloe is the subject of an ardent south-of-the-border rescue campaign. Sam and Rachel are scouring the countryside in search of her, with the lovesick Papi leading the charge. But will they find her in time? Each day the coddled canine is lost, the chances fall. With a villainous Doberman Pincer (voice of Edward James Olmos), hungry mountain lions, and roving gangs of shabby mongrels standing between her and freedom, the odds of Chloe making it home in one piece are actually pretty slim.
There are so many talking dog movies, that they might as well have their own genre. Disney has certainly done well by them in everything from Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians to the more recent Eight Below. Say what you will about them, they always draw the crowds.
Part chase film, part road trip, part buddy comedy, and at one point, part Indiana Jones adventure, Beverly Hills Chihuahua makes the most of its expansive Mexican surroundings—
shooting in Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta and the awe-inspiring Sonoran Desert—to spin an imitative, contemporary Disney fairytale. It's easy on the eyes, soft on the heart and never really engages the head. But then, this is a kids' movie and the priorities are a bit different.
Technically, the CGI work is integrated nearly seamlessly with the live action footage. The dogs may be real, but their mouths and expressions are manipulated to give the impression of speech. The only two fully CG characters, a con-artist rat (voice of Cheech Marin) and his iguana sidekick (voice of Paul Rodriguez), give the film a more cartoonish feel. Oddly enough, Chloe, of all the dogs, seems the least believable.
It's too bad the dogs have so little worth saying. You know those annoyingly cutesy cards and e-mail forwards you get with impossibly adorable animals attached to some sort of encouraging pick-me-up? That's sort of how the entire script reads—lame and endearing but not very sharp. Writing for children is obviously different than writing for adults. The worst grown-up message movies fail specifically because they eschew subtlety for preachiness. Whereas children's films, by necessity, operate on a much more overt level and require that sort of forthrightness.
Beverly Hills Chihuahua's message is one of self-discovery, humility, devotion and tolerance. The film blasts the superficiality of Hollywood without doing anything other than showing its atrocious excesses. "We're not toys or fashion accessories!" one Chihuahua proclaims. You hear that, Paris Hilton?
It drives home the point of friendship and loyalty, traits Chloe has never experienced nor truly been called on to provide. In Delgado, her German shepherd protector, Chloe learns for the first time what it means to keep your word and stick with someone even in the worst of times.
Chloe also learns that, though she may be small, even the small are mighty and can play a part in the most ominous of situations. Lost in the desert, Chloe meets a tribe of Chihuahuas amongst some long-lost Aztec ruins, whose leader (voice of Placido Domingo) introduces her to the pride of her Mexican ancestry. He encourages her to find her own voice in the world and be brave enough to use it when the time comes. It is a lesson the tiny but scrappy Papi already knows well. He is not afraid to confront danger 10 times his size to protect those he loves. "I may be small," he tells us, "but I fight for something bigger than us all."
While the action focuses primarily on the adorable mutts, the human actors get their 15 plus minutes of fame. Perabo and Cardona are basically carbon copies of their dogs. She is flighty, irresponsible and self-absorbed. He is selfless, compassionate and chivalrous. Why in the world Papi is attracted to Chloe, or Sam is attracted to Rachel is a mystery. Because the screenwriters needed a romantic angle, that's why. And they needed Chloe and Rachel to face a series of challenges that, emerging on the other side, made them worthy of their men's adoration.
Director Raja Gosnell may not have made a masterpiece, but that doesn't mean he doesn't deserve audiences' respect. It is one of the oldest maxims in Hollywood: never work with kids or animals. Gosnell (Scooby Doo) must have questioned his decision to helm this film on more occasions than he can count. With more than 200 animals managed by some 60 trainers, Beverly Hills Chihuahua cannot have been an easy film to make.
Beverly Hills Chihuahua is pretty mediocre stuff. It lacks any real center, even for a children's movie. It is powered by a catchy soundtrack of Latino-tinged top 40 hits, and borrows piecemeal from everything that's gone before it. While it is always colorful and cute, it's the sort of escapism that is enjoyable only while it lasts—which probably won't be for very long. It's not all that fresh or all that clever, but let's be honest, will your kids care?
In a year light on family films, Beverly Hills Chihuahua may be one of parents' better bets. Full of exciting adventure, admirable messages, and good, clean fun, it just may be a must see for families. But be warned, its bite is worse than its bark!Discussion starters
- At one point in the film, Chloe's Chihuahua mentor tells her that, "If you look with your heart and not your eyes, we are all the same." How are you ensuring that your kids understand that, "red and yellow, black and white" all children are precious in God's sight?
- After Papi moves heaven and earth to find her, a humbled Chloe admits, "After the way I treated you, how could you come back for me?" How is Papi's unconditional love a mirror of God's unrelenting affection for his children?
- Several of the characters in Beverly Hills Chihuahua find their priorities drastically realigned by the end of the film. Have you ever had to go through a "desert experience"—a really hard time—to find out where your priorities are? Does God lead us through those tough times to teach us?
- No matter how small or insignificant you feel, God sees you as mighty. What are some verses supporting this claim?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Beverly Hills Chihuahua is rated PG for some mild thematic elements mostly involving dog fights. While the scenes don't play very long, nor are they in any way graphic, they may frighten some small children. There's not much offensive here aside from some very tame innuendo that will go right over kids' heads, and a male dog obviously patterned after a gay male stereotype.
Photos © Copyright Walt Disney Pictures
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