Dir: Lawrence Guterman. US. 2001. 87 mins.

A comedy featuring realistic-looking, talking versions of humankind's favourite domestic pets sounds like a good way to reach the sometimes elusive family audience. But Cats & Dogs proves - if it still needs proving - that in this genre at least all the computer effects wizardry in the world can't replace genuine emotional warmth and well-crafted humour. Warner Bros. has shown enough confidence in this $50m live action/CGI hybrid to launch it over the July 4 Independence Day weekend with a substantial marketing campaign, so a big opening looks likely. Longer term prospects seem much less certain, although the film's performance in international markets could be helped by the use of well-known local voiceover talent.

Originally developed as an animated feature, Cats & Dogs still has plenty of cartoonish traits. The 'star' is cute beagle puppy Lou (voiced by Maguire), who, after being adopted by the family of kooky scientist Professor Brody (Goldblum), finds himself recruited as an agent in an on-going espionage war between the world's cats and dogs. Lou becomes part of a Mission Impossible-style team of canines that also includes the no-nonsense Butch (voiced by Baldwin), the dim-witted Sam (Duncan) and the cheeky Peek (Pantoliano). The cats are led by feline evil genius Mr Tinkles (voiced by Hayes from television hit Will & Grace). The voiceover performances are all relatively restrained and the film might have benefited from one or two more exaggerated vocal turns.

To put the story on screen, director Lawrence Guterman (who previously directed some sequences of Antz) and his team used real animals, animatronic puppets and computer effects developed by F/X shop Rhythm & Hues (Babe, Dr Dolittle 2). The technology used to give animals moving lips and facial expressions has improved significantly in recent years and here it works most effectively with the dogs. The cats often look like Gremlins rejects. The film's humour certainly betrays its cartoon roots. One of the fight sequences was reportedly toned down when the project switched from animation to live action, but there is still plenty of broad, cartoon-style slapstick and physical humour as the dogs face up to Mr Tinkles' aggressive ninja henchcats. What's missing is the kind of sharp verbal comedy that might have made the film more enjoyable for adults.

As for drama, Cats & Dogs makes only cursory efforts to engage its audience's emotions. There is a skimpy subplot involving Professor Brody's neglect of his eager-to-please son Scott and occasional glimpses of a developing relationship between the lonely but initially standoffish boy and the loveable Lou. The relationship is resolved in a brief and mechanical scene that feels, as does much of the rest of the film, like an afterthought to the effects work.

Prod cos: Warner Bros Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures, NPV Entertainment
US dist: Warner Bros.
Int'l dist: Warner/Village Roadshow (Australia/New Zealand, Singapore, Greece)
Prods: Andrew Lazar, Chris Defaria, Warren Zide, Craig Perry
Exec prods: Bruce Berman, Chris Bender & J C Spink
Scr: John Requa & Glenn Ficarra
Cinematography: Julio Macat
Prod des: James Bissell
Eds: Michael Stevenson, Rick W Finney
Music: John Debney
Main cast: Jeff Goldblum, Elizabeth Perkins, Toby Maguire (voice), Alec Baldwin (voice), Sean Hayes (voice), Susan Sarandon (voice), Joe Pantoliano (voice), Michael Clarke Duncan (voice), Jon Lovitz (voice).