COMMENTARY: Kids deserve better than any version of ‘Show Dogs’

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As a pseudo-film critic for the past 15 years, I’ve seen my share of terrible movies. And as a parent of four young children, I’ve also been subjected to some especially horrible kids movies.

Then there’s “Show Dogs,” the live-action talking animal movie about a cop dog that investigates a kidnapping (technically a panda-napping) at one of those “Best in Show” canine competitions. In a climactic sequence, the movie offers a disturbing coping strategy for unwanted genital touching.

Whew. Perhaps a little context is in order.

“Show Dogs” opened in theaters on May 18 as counterprogramming to the very R-rated “Deadpool 2.” It failed spectacularly at the box office, earning a little more than $6 million in the first weekend.

That should have been the end for “Show Dogs,” but apparently a few people who actually saw the thing noticed something strange, because after just a few days of release, my social media feeds were bombarded by parental warnings about the film’s disturbing message. Even a couple of local news outlets shared a similar warning.

The most damning contempt came from The National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), which took issue with scenes in which the main dog character, Max (voiced by the rapper-actor Ludacris), is forced to have his private parts touched and inspected. He is then taught strategies to cope with the discomfort.

It’s these specific tactics that left the NCOSE especially concerned. Max is told to imagine a happy place and simply ignore the touching. The NCOSE says, “Disturbingly, these are similar tactics child abusers use when grooming children -- telling them to pretend they are somewhere else, and that they will get a reward for withstanding their discomfort.”

Yikes.

In light of this backlash, the producers of the film originally released a statement defending its depiction of dog show judging and said that any connection to sexual abuse was regrettable and unintentional.

But after a couple of days, the production company obviously figured out this wasn’t the best response. Less than a week after its debut, the studio announced the film would undergo edits to remove the objectionable content, with the new version being released in theaters ahead of Memorial Day weekend. Hey, maybe now it will give the “Han Solo” movie a run for its money!

After reading all this, I decided to see the original cut of “Show Dogs” before it left theaters. To be clear, I didn’t want to watch “Show Dogs,” especially if it contained genuinely disturbing messages about sexual abuse. But these types of boycotts can sometimes get overblown, with many of the loudest critiques coming from people who haven’t even seen the content in question.

This line of thinking led me to a 7:15 p.m. Wednesday screening of “Show Dogs.” I’m a frequent MoviePass user, so don’t worry, I didn’t technically spend money on it. I did, however, ask the teenage attendant for my ticket by saying, “One grown adult to ‘Show Dogs,’ please.”

“Show Dogs,” by any objective standard, is awful, and that’s apparent in the opening action scene which pits cop dog Max against a hapless FBI agent played by Will Arnett (attempting a ridiculous New Yaawk accent on every third line). One of the film’s earliest low points is when a talking pigeon shares her affection for Max by saying, “He can flip this bird anyday.”

The line of dialogue isn’t appropriate for children, obviously, but this sort of crass-nonsense has been a part of lowbrow children’s entertainment forever and most especially after the success of “Shrek,” which is definitely not the movie you remember liking back in 2001. “Sneaking in” adult themes and jokes might earn a chuckle or two from a bored parent, but more production houses need to study the Pixar model and make movies that are uniformly entertaining for children and adults without taking these kinds of cheap shots.

But I digress. It’s easy to roll onto a tangent when trying to avoid the topic of “Show Dogs.”

Anyway, here are a few other obnoxiously immature lines in the film:

• “I cannot polish a turd, but perhaps I can roll it in glitter.”

• Max, flirting with a female dog about his experience: “I’ve been around the block, and I’ve been off the leash if you know what I mean.”

• There’s also a scene where Max tries to sneak by some bodyguards by rubbing his butt on the ground while crossing his disturbing CGI eyes and howling like a freak, to which one of the guards dismisses the behavior as “inbreeding.” Classy stuff.

After an hour or so of atrocious special effects, simplistic pratfalls and shameless mugging by a clearly embarrassed Arnett, the movie arrives at a montage in which Max must train for the final round of competition. Among his exercises is tolerating a genital inspection without kicking Arnett in the face.

At first, the scene doesn’t seem too bad - dogs, after all, do go through this discomfort, and it makes sense for Max, a police dog, to be uncomfortable, even as he gives consent to be touched.

(I just stopped and re-read that last paragraph. I once aspired to be a film critic for the New York Times. Life is unpredictable.)

Then the movie takes it up to an unbelievable level. Max’s trainer dog (voiced by Stanley Tucci) gives Max the advice to “focus on not reacting to the grab.”

Tucci-dog continues: “The inspection is the hardest part of the show dog experience. You must go in your mind to your happy place, then nothing will stop you.”

It’s gross, man. Even if I wasn’t tipped-off to the controversy, I’d be disturbed.

The movie doubles down on this concept in the climactic show scene, when Max begins to picture his own “happy place” as the judge approaches his southern region. What follows is a psychedelic montage of the film’s dog characters, as well as an extended gag of Max and Arnett dancing around hand-in-paw.

The dream sequence ends, the judge compliments Max, and the soundtrack blasts the LMFAO song, “Sexy and I Know It.”

There are people who will say, “It’s just about a dog. Stop taking things so seriously.” But if a movie makes a point of personifying animals - meaning the animals talk and behave like humans - then you are inviting children to compare their experiences to the characters onscreen.

Watching the film in its entirety, I don’t believe the filmmakers behind “Show Dogs” intentionally settled onto this disturbing message. Both these scenes are played for apparent laughs, and the crotch-grabbing humor certainly matches the other horrendous attempts at humor throughout the movie.

What’s incredible to me is how the scenes made it all the way through the production process and into theaters without any person in power saying, “Wait? What’s this now?” It speaks to the level of laziness behind these productions, and to how little these filmmakers think about the experience of the audience. Nobody thought this was problematic because nobody thought anything period. Because parents will take their kids to anything, right?

Even with the disturbing scenes removed, “Show Dogs” is an excruciating viewing experience. Kids deserve more than empty entertainment, and plenty of content out there makes an effort to provide children with captivating messages and value-positive storytelling.

I’ll credit the studio for doing the right thing and removing those garbage scenes. I’m not one to advocate for censorship, but when a movie directly targets children, it should be smarter about the messages conveyed to their target audience. And by the way, where was the MPAA on this matter? Isn’t it their job to watch movies for content that could be potentially harmful to children?

Look, never see “Show Dogs.” Don’t let your kids watch the “clean” version of “Show Dogs.” They deserve better. Pixar’s “The Incredibles 2” opens on June 15.

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