I have learned many things from talking-dog movies. For instance: Dogs are very philosophical.
This might come as a surprise from an animal willing to fetch a stick 100 times in a row, but according to the movies, man’s best friend is a deep thinker.
The other thing I’ve learned is that talking-dog movies are brutal. Loss, longing and being left home alone for extended periods are invariably part of the deal.
These lessons are embedded in the syrupy goo of “The Art of Racing in the Rain.” To be fair, technically this is a dog voiceover movie — no computer-generated moving lips, like “The Lion King.” The dog’s wisdom is delivered by Kevin Costner at his gruffest.
Costner provides the voice for Enzo, a golden retriever who narrates the story. Enzo is adopted as a pup by Denny (Milo Ventimiglia), a Seattle race-car driver. Over the next few years, Enzo witnesses the ups and downs of Denny’s world, including marriage, fatherhood and death.
Enzo isn’t entirely happy about Denny’s bride, Eve (Amanda Seyfried, from the “Mamma Mia” world), because she’s an obvious threat to his place by Denny’s side. But dogs live and learn, even if they keep leaving messes on the rug.
Eve has wealthy parents, played by Martin Donovan and Kathy Baker. Don’t let their superficial blandness fool you: The heartlessness lurking within these two will lead to some of the movie’s more outlandish moments.
Based on a best-selling novel by Seattle writer Garth Stein, “The Art of Racing” probably works better as a canine monologue in a book. On the screen, the film plays like a cutesy chapter in the “Dog’s Purpose” series, but with less believable plot turns.
Among the worst moments are traumatic incidents that happen to Enzo because of human carelessness: Denny letting the dog trot through the city while off-leash, or Enzo being left alone without food for three days.
The latter episode is especially implausible, given what we’ve seen of the characters to that point, but we need to see how Enzo’s starvation leads to a comical episode involving the home’s stuffed animals. So there you go.
Director Simon Curtis, who previously directed Winnie the Pooh in “Christopher Robin and Me,” gets a nice performance out of the dog. He can’t do much with “This Is Us” star Ventimiglia, who leans heavily on the meathead side of Denny’s personality.
Vancouver, B.C., stands in for Seattle, lending a vague sense of dislocation to the proceedings. But the film would have that anyway, given its shameless heart-tugging and superficial philosophy. I kept wishing a talking cat would saunter in to poke fun at all this sentimental gush.
Costner puts on a grizzled, regular-Joe voice, as though to cut against the melodrama. It might’ve been a little more authentic if he’d had a few slobbering episodes, but even for a movie about talking dogs, this is too much authenticity to expect.
“The Art of Racing in the Rain” (2 stars)
A syrupy adaptation of Seattle writer Garth Stein’s novel, in which a golden retriever narrates (in the voice of Kevin Costner) his life story — or the melodramatic story of the race-car driver (Milo Ventimiglia) who owns him. A good canine performance can’t make up for the shameless heart-tugging. With Amanda Seyfried.
Rating: PG, for subject matter
Opening Friday: Alderwood Mall, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood Cinemas, Meridian, Pacific Place, Seattle 10, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall