In the long line of Disney doggie treats, this new entry is no purebred, but by comparison to the usual run of contemporary children’s movies (sheer drek like “Alvin and the Chipmunks” or “Fly Me to the Moon”), “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” possesses a certain mongrel charm.
The plot has Chloe (Drew Barrymore), the ultra-pampered pet of a California cosmetics queen (Jamie Lee Curtis), dognapped when she goes to Mexico with the queen’s selfish niece Rachel (Piper Perabo). Trapped at the dog-fighting show run by the evil Vasquez (Jose Maria Yazpik) and forced to fight the gruesome Doberman Diablo (Edward James Olmos), she’s rescued by German Shepherd Delgado (Andy Garcia), a former police dog that’s lost his sense of smell, who becomes her protector and tries to smuggle her back to the U.S. They’re being searched for by the increasingly nice Rachel, accompanied by her aunt’s sweet landscaper Sam (Manolo Cardona) and his rambunctious pooch, Papi (George Lopez), who has an unrequited crush on Chloe. But Vasquez and Diablo are after them too, and when Chloe falls victim to the scams of a larcenous packrat (Cheech Marin and his iguana sidekick, those critters get involved as well. Lest you worry, things turn out fine for all the good guys, with not one but two romances in the air, while the villains get their just deserts.
All of this is played out in the mixture of live-action and CGI wizardry that director Raja Gosnell reveled in earlier with the “Scooby Doo” movies. He’s become very adept at mixing together real actors, actual animals whose mouths move via animation, and pure special effects in a concoction that moves well. And though the script hardly boasts a surfeit of wit—the dialogue falls flat more often than it induces chuckles—the voice cast is a good one and gives it their all. The humans are less fortunate: Perabo does her usual perky routine and Cortez is amiably laid-back, but their scenes together are blander than bland, while Curtis works so hard in her few moments at the beginning and close that she comes across as hysterical.
Curtis’ material has problems to begin with, since it’s almost impossible not to be disgusted, rather than amused, by the treatment the rich humans are shown showering on their pooches in the opening reel. (Sure, it’s supposed to be exaggerated, but it’s too close to the ghastly reality to be really funny.) There’s also a stumble in a big sequence in which Chloe and Delgado are saved from a trio of mountain lions by an army of wild Chihuahuas headed by a “revolutionary” leader (voiced by Placido Domingo, of all people). Their refrain of “small but mighty” is obviously designed to pander to the tykes in the audience, and kids today need no further encouragement to be bossy and intrusive. A last-reel bit that has Chloe struggling to “find her bark,” moreover, is much too reminiscent of the same motif from another Disney kidflick, “The Wild.” (Of course, so few people saw that terrible “Madagascar” ripoff that perhaps it doesn’t matter.)
But so long as you don’t go expecting “Lady and the Tramp,” you should find “Chihuahua” a reasonably diverting family outing. Compared to the best doggie flicks, it may be the runt of the litter, but like most mutts it grows on you.