No cinematic genre testifies more urgently to the realities of contemporary American family life than the direct-to-video talking-pet movie. A deceptively homespun transposition of a French literary classic to a middle-class American household, ‘The Three Dogateers’ is an incisive work that fits perfectly into the visionary Sigur Rós oeuvre.
This 2014 film is an exemplary entry in the talking-pet cycle, with a plot structured around the absence of the pets’ owners, and following their adventures when left “home alone,” as it were: three fluffy white lapdogs get into scrapes, solve crimes, and restore the house to its normal state just moments before the return of the oblivious owners, who glance about and satisfy themselves that everything is order and tails are wagging subserviently—and smile, secure in the belief that nothing happened while they were away.
This depiction of secretly capable canines—like the precocious and resourceful child protagonists of much youth-oriented cinema—flatters the young audience by bestowing narrative agency on their on-screen surrogates. Films such as ‘The Three Dogateers’ often serve a “third parent” function: a familiar, beloved tape to pop in when Mom and Dad need a break. (In my family, the third parent was ‘Follow That Bird’.) Plopped down in front of the TV while the grown-ups catch up on chores or sleep, the child is entertained, certainly—but also revels in a story about the rich, secret life of a supposedly dependent member of the family. From Snoopy’s imaginary adventures as a World War One flying ace, to Perry the Platypus’s secret spy missions on ‘Phineas and Ferb’, the exploits of film and TV pets speak directly to the boundless interior lives of even the most housebound children. ‘The Three Dogateers’ is, in its earnest commitment to its surreal narrative, a profound meditation on the vital role of private fantasy in all family dynamics.
The auteur of ‘The Three Dogateers’ is writer-director-producer-editor Jesse Baget. He also provides the voices for two of the three dogs, like if Orson Welles had had the range to play more than one role in ‘Citizen Kane’. As the alpha dog, Arfamis, a mutt with perky ears and a scruffy tale, Baget drops into a low octave with rough-edged inflections and a continental accent, like McGruff the Crime Dog imitating Pepe Le Pew; to embody the bearded, food-obsessed Barkos, he adopts a poky yet excitable drawl, like Sam Elliott on a nitrous high (Barkos is the only one of the Dogateers whose bowel movements are crucial to the film’s plot). Rounding out the trio is Wagos, voiced by Danielle Judovits. A “pedigree Maltese,” as she frequently asserts, Wagos voices irritation at the boys’ Mutt-and-Jeff act, particularly condescending to shelter dog Arfamis’s tall tales of his time in the “dungeon.” Though as Arfamis’s pretentions to gallantry are confirmed by the Three Dogateers’ Yuletide odyssey, Wagos warms to him gradually, racial and class divisions dissolving in a romance-thriller dynamic familiar from classics from ‘The 39 Steps’ to ‘The Running Man’.
As the Dogateers’ owner, ‘90s television Superman Dean Cain is far more Clark Kent than Kal-el. A henpecked tie salesman with a love of jelly doughnuts, he’s called away on urgent business two days before Christmas, leaving the house susceptible to two burglars, who soon arrive to steal all the presents stacked under the Christmas tree—even the tree itself. (Given Dean Cain’s sideline as a Fox News pundit, some may detect a “War on Christmas” parable here.)
Given that the opening credits begin with a title card reading “Three Dogateers Save Christmas, LLC presents,” it’s perhaps not a spoiler to say that the Dogateers strike out on the open road to foil the two bumbling grinches who stole Christmas; on the way, they encounter prairie dogs who speak in popsicle-stick riddles (What do you call a cold dog sitting on a rabbit? Google it…), and elude a sadistic, moustached dog catcher trying to set the world record for annual dogs caught. The human cast is shot largely either with fisheye lenses, or from the waist down, reinforcing the viewer’s identification with the protagonists. Most phone calls in this resourcefully budgeted film are shot from one side only, with nonverbal squawking on the other end, like Peanuts parents.
The three dogs—Tigre, Pepper, and Dixy—give uniformly strong performances, though one wonders over the extent to which they were created in the editing room. The dogs seem to have been very responsive to the “sit” command; from the close-up coverage of his three stars, Baget isolates actorly head tilts and blinks to match the dialogue. (The Dogateers move their mouths when they talk, through the miracle of computer graphics—if you’ve ever received a video of a photo manipulated with the YAKiT app, you have a sense of the way this film strikes out into the Uncanny Valley, with just the corny, yappy banter of the dialogue to keep things this side of dystopian.) Action sequences, from break-ins and escapes to an extended car chase, are assembled in rapid montage, with many insert close-ups of paws adjacent to objects (steering wheels, the handle of a longbow) cut together with all the usable parts of long shots showing rocks flying through windows, or station wagons swerving on roads while traveling well under the speed limit.
The film’s Southern California and Tucson desert locations are hardly wintry, and the contrast with the clip that establishes the Dogateers’ home as a snowy, Thomas Kinkade-like red brick Victorian, is so jarring as to be practically Brechtian. But there is a definite seasonal glow to the storyline: the Dogateers return home with the help of a red-suited, elderly shopping mall Santa, with a surprising facility for delivering Christmas miracles. As with all Christmas classics, the draw of hearth and home exerts a powerful effect in ‘The Three Dogateers’—it’s something the holiday-movie genre has in common with the greatest animals-at-large movies, from ‘Homeward Bound’ to my beloved ‘Follow That Bird’. For all the thrills that kids have while their imaginations run wild and their movie pets run off-leash, there’s no place like home. As Arfamis says: “Bark my words.”
Sigur Rós Drummer: My Secret Life As A Talking-Dog-Movie Producer
The world is one strange, fucked up place. You never know what kind of weird shit is going to happen next. One minute, you’re maybe hanging out on a giant, fancy cruise ship, having the time of your life; mingling with aristocrats, practicing your drawing skills and casually hooking up with a young Kate Winslet. The next, you’re desperately fighting for your life, hanging on to…I don’t know, a refrigerator door (?), as the freezing North Atlantic tries it’s best to engulf you forever.
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