Grade: C

Kids whose ages don’t exceed single digits will get a kick out of this canine twist on the 1978 Disney flick “The Cat from Outer Space.” For anybody else, though, sitting through “Good Boy!” is likely to be quite a chore. “Babe” proved that talking-animal movies can be witty and subtle enough to appeal to everyone, but this one is obviously directed at the lower end of the age spectrum.

The audience surrogate is twelve-year old Owen (Liam Aiken), who’s been walking dogs all summer with a promise from his parents (Kevin Nealon and Molly Shannon) that he’ll be allowed to adopt one of his own when his work is complete. Just as mom and dad are completing the renovation of their latest house–they fix them up and sell them at a profit–Owen goes to the pound and decides on a cute little pooch, who turns out to be an agent named Hubble from the Dog Star Sirius, sent to earth to check on reports that its canines–sent from the home planet millennia ago to colonize the planet–have instead become subservient to humans. By accident Owen is able to converse with Hubble (voiced by Matthew Broderick), and together they work to prep the unprepared neighborhood dogs for a visit from the ruler of Sirius, the Greater Dane, who will remove all the canines from the planet unless she’s convinced that the rumors that they don’t dominate humans aren’t true. Of course, in the process Owen and Hubble bond and the pooch comes to understand the important role earth dogs play for humans; the kid, meanwhile, can’t bear the thought of losing his pet–just the latest separation he has to endure.

Obviously there’s a lot of “E.T.” in John Hoffman’s first directorial effort, but not much of that movie’s vision. “Good Boy!” is strictly “E.T.” lite–a cross between Spielberg’s movie and “Benji” that comes out a mutt, more crudely frantic rather than charming and more mawkish than sweetly sentimental. Aiken is a likable kid, the pooch who plays Hubble is personable, and Broderick does a more than adequate job; but the relationship that’s built between Owen and Hubble is strictly at Disney cable-network level. The other dogs, voiced by the like of Brittany Murphy, Delta Burke, Donald Faison and Carl Reiner, go through their paces amusingly enough as well. But the material involving other humans–Nealon and Shannon, clearly, but also some neighborhood bullies (Hunter Elliot and Mikhael Speidel) and a little girl (Brittany Moldowan) with eyes for Owen–is thoroughly pedestrian (and amateurishly played); and the big finale with the Greater Dane (voiced by Vanessa Redgrave) is frankly awful.

The stupid pet tricks that fill the movie will appeal to the kiddies, and tickle some adults as well. And it must be acknowledged that the dogs all seem extremely well trained, and the animation work that gives them the illusion of talking is very well managed. But despite the title, “Good Boy!” would need a lot more training to be first-rate family entertainment; though the youngest viewers may enjoy it, compared to the classic flicks about boys and their dogs, it’s the runt of the litter.