It’s a Hollywood staple at this point that audiences are treated to an adult comedy towards summer’s end. In 2016 it was Sausage Party. 2019 gave us Good Boys. In 2007? That’s right; it was Super Bad. Way, way back in 1999, we watched American Pie. With all that considered, Strays very much fits the bill for its late August release date. Is this raunchy tale about a very “Good Boy” deserving of some belly rubs? Or is it off to the pound for this one? Read on!
Strays follows Reggie (Will Ferrell). The young terrier is living his best life with his owner Doug (Will Forte.) Well, at least Reggie thinks this is his best life. When Doug takes Reggie for a super-sized game of “Fetch and F*ck,” the dog is thrust into an incredible journey to find his way home. Together with Bug (Jamie Foxx), Maggie (Isla Fisher) and Hunter (Randall Park), Reggie learns not simply who he is but what is, in fact, the most crucial lesson in his life. He really is a “Good Boy.” Josh Greenbaum directs Strays from a script by Dan Perrault.
The year that is 2023 treated audiences to a wide swath of effects-driven movies. We’ve seen everything from the stunning and impressive to the cringeworthy “uncanny valleys.” Strays, it seems, sits squarely in the middle of the spectrum.
Strays follows four dogs as the main characters. Millennials out there will remember Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. Did you ever want to know what Homeward Bound would be when viewed through a hard-R rating? You get Strays.
Strays quickly finds itself locked into a strange visual uncanny valley. Director Josh Greenbaum grounds the movie with a strong sense of realism. There’s no question this is our reality. These aren’t animated dogs. In many shots, they seem to be real. Furthermore, when the animals don’t speak, it is often difficult to gauge what’s real and what might be fake. However, this realism flies out the window when the dogs open their mouths. Instead, audiences are left trapped inside a “live-action animation” reality. Getting these creatures to emote is a challenge, and as they open their mouths, the images range from slightly awkward and uncanny to nightmare fuel.
It is often discussed in critical circles that animation is forgiving. A viewer can watch Family Guy (as an example) and look past the fact that Stewie is an infant bent on world domination because it’s an animated series. Animation doesn’t have to be real.
Similarly, Perrault’s script is deeply rooted in hard-R fantasy as we’re fully immersed in these dogs’ perspectives. They live in their own world, completely separate from their human owners. They drink liquor from the garbage, eat hallucinogenic mushrooms and participate in massive humping parties. There’s nothing realistic about this story.
Unfortunately, the film is mired in painfully realistic, almost bland visuals. We know this world intimately. It’s our world. This results in a jarring tonal shift that doesn’t always work due to the script’s zany nature. This is a strange choice as director Josh Greenbaum is best known to audiences for his work on one of the brightest and zaniest movies of the last few years, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar. In truth, I far preferred Barb and Star’s stylization to the borderline forgettable visuals employed in Strays.
As a result, I felt myself distracted throughout the movie. A great deal of this stems from the tonal tug of war. As mentioned, the dogs are actually dogs! They had me wrapped around their little paws, and I’m embarrassed to admit… I was terrified there would be an emotional Marley & Me moment. (Fear not!) At the same time, the vocal performances can best be called “no frills.” At no point are you able to fully lose yourself in these characters. Strays is built around movie stars as voice actors. Ferrel and Foxx, in particular, are unabashedly themselves. At no point are you watching Reggie. You’re watching Will Ferrell playing Reggie.
Believe it or not, though, I thoroughly enjoyed myself while watching Strays. Perrault’s script has no qualms at all with being very adult. It’s crass, and it’s incredibly dirty. For those who aren’t bothered by some real gutter humor, it’s two hours of “turn your brain off” fun.
All in all, Strays is one of those movies which causes my “critic brain” great angst. This is certainly not a perfect movie. While there certainly are things to talk about which didn’t work for me, I did enjoy myself immensely watching this raunchy comedy. Strays won’t be for everyone, but those who like movies with no pretense and restraint will have a blast. It goes to some weird and wacky places. Just enjoy the ride.
Strays hits theaters around the country on August 18, 2023.
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