Movies with dogs as protagonists usually have one of two routes to take. They can either present the dog as the quintessential ‘man’s best friend,’ observing the world with the knowledge of a canine (like “A Dog’s Way Home“), or they offer the animal a human-like consciousness. “The Art of Racing in the Rain” presents its four legged protagonist in the latter manner, making him closer to a wise old man than just an animal. Here, the pup is more of a three dimensional character than he otherwise would be, which has its charms. Unfortunately, this also calls extra attention to how poorly developed the human characters are. Enzo the dog is an unusual and winning creation. Anyone in the film on two legs does not fare as well. Movies like “Marley and Me” found a balance between dog and human; this entry into the sub-genre isn’t able to.
Narrated by Enzo (voice of Kevin Costner), “The Art of Racing in the Rain” centers on the dog and his human owner Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia), an aspiring Formula One racer. Their bond is strong, with Enzo Denny’s biggest fan. TV has also taught the dog much of what he knows about life, including a documentary about how some in the Far East believe that when a dog learns everything they need to know in life, they are reborn as a human. Upon learning this, Enzo is determined to live his life in such a way that there is potential for this reincarnation.
Denny and Enzo are an inseparable pair, though once Eve (Amanda Seyfried) comes into the equation, the twosome becomes a trio. Enzo initially is resistant to the expansion of their family, but when daughter Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) is born, Enzo realizes he’s actually the family protector – finding a calling. As Enzo is observing life and attempting to keep harm from coming to the Swift clan, life has tragic plans for the small tribe.
“The Art of Racing in the Rain” falls short of its intended mark as a full on tearjerker and nuanced entry into the suddenly popular entry of dog-centric films. The dog related elements are watchable, yet underwhelming feeling contrived by over stimulated production and not enough character development. Enzo’s desire to eventually become human is forgotten about for long stretches. However, the true issue resides with the fact that everyone with opposable thumbs offers up very little interest. Their troubles are cliched, the solutions boilerplate. Life just happens, making them passive elements of the story. Especially when the pooch is narrating and the prime focus, any and all diversions to the human tale of life, love, and loss is lacking in heft. Whatever stakes are established by the dog wanting to become human, they’re not tethered to the people in the slightest. As the filmmakers lean more and more on the issues of the Swift family, things go further off the rails. Not only is Enzo’s quest given short shrift and not developed, the soapy human elements are a poor replacement.
Kevin Costner’s voiceover work grows in effectiveness as the picture progresses and the dog ages. By the time Enzo is a senior, Costner’s gravitas is well suited to the Golden Retriever. The gravelly and gruff tones of Costner capably depict a dog who’s trying his best to become a person. Unfortunately, the performances by Milo Ventimiglia and Amanda Seyfried are unremarkable given the vapid material they have to work with. Ventimiglia falls into cliche after cliche due to the melodramatic script, while Seyfried is underserved by the material, existing solely to add the dramatic/tragic quotient. Whenever the focus is just on them, the picture struggles. Supporting players like Kathy Baker, Gary Cole, and Martin Donovan fare no better.
Director Simon Curtis puts forth by-the-book filmmaking here, with no spark or excitement, not even a risk. There’s never a sense of why this was the movie he needed to make. Everything on the screen just happens, without full narrative drive. From Enzo’s desires to remedy the Swift family troubles, nothing comes across as an essential story to tell. Scribe Mark Bomback has adapted the novel of the same name by Garth Stein into this feature, keeping the dog’s point of view as the central focus. However, due to the nature of artistic license, Bomback and Curtis deviate and follow the humans for long stretches. Enzo still narrates throughout, but “The Art of Racing in the Rain” forgets about his journey far too often. When the narrative turns sappy, the score by Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran does its utmost to bring audiences to tears. Frankly, that’s much of what Bomback and Curtis focus on in the third act. The human related sadness is overly melodramatic. The dog related woes are a cheap shot that gets the waterworks flowing. Anyone with a heart will cry when a dog is in danger or reaching the end of their life. That’s not nearly enough to make up for the shortcomings throughout. By the time the picture has gotten to this climax, the audience is worn out from deviations in specific narrative spurts.
The more focus is put on Enzo, the better things are here. When Curtis and Bomback concentrate on Denny, Eve, and company the film suffers. Enzo’s belief that a dog can become a human in the next life if it acquires enough knowledge is barely paid attention to, but it’s a novel concept. So too are some of the dog-centric asides, like Enzo’s hatred of one of Zoe’s stuffed animals. All of that is cute. Unfortunately, the creative forces here don’t believe enough in it, moving back to human issues, racing, and general melodrama whenever possible. It’s a misguided bit of cinematic calculus that keeps the film from fully working. More focus on Enzo working towards his goal would have given the film an identity and set it apart.
Fans of dog-centered cinema will find some things to like about “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” though it forgets to truly center the narrative on the canine star. Ultimately, it offers nothing new and isn’t about enough to warrant a recommendation on cuteness alone. The movie manipulates and generates most of its intended emotion, but without a genuine connection. Consider the picture to be a missed opportunity, one lacking the emotional bond it presumes to have. We’ve seen this all done before, and better, in works like “Marley and Me.” Without a reason to tell this tale of a dog’s life well lived, the poorly depicted humans take center stage and ruin it all. Good dog. Bad humans.