October 3, 2008
Family friendly; live-action comedy
Drew Barrymore, George Lopez, Jamie Lee Curtis, Piper Perabo, Manolo Cardona, Andy Garcia, Cheech Marin, Paul Rodriguez, Placido Domingo
Analisa Labianco (screenplay) and Jeff Bushell (story)
Mandeville Films/Smart Entertainment, Walt Disney Pictures
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By Laura J. Bagby
CBN.com Sr. Producer
It’s fiesta time south of the border. Hundreds of nearly identical, tiny, big-eared pooches arrayed in headdresses line the perimeter and jut out from the majestic crevices of some mythical-looking Aztec pyramids in Mexico as the Broadway-style song and dance number continues.
That was my first introduction to Disney’s new live-action comedy, Beverly Hills Chihuahua, which releases in theatres nationwide October 3. And the first time I watched the over-the-top trailer, I thought, with a bit of an eye roll, Hollywood has certainly gone to the dogs!
And, well, having now seen the movie, I can say that is the literal case.
Hollywood has, indeed, gone to the dogs… more than 200, to be exact, including Doberman pinschers, poodles, pugs, German shepherds, Chihuahuas, a St. Bernard, a Labrador, a French bulldog, a dachshund, and the list goes on.
And, honestly, I don’t think the trailer I saw does this new live-action comedy justice. I think you, like me, might just be nicely surprised by this deeper-than-you-think, humorous family film that pokes fun at frivolity and showcases the voice and comic talents of Drew Barrymore, George Lopez, Andy Garcia, Cheech Marin, and Paul Rodriguez, plus delightful screen performances by Jamie Lee Curtis, Piper Perabo, and Manolo Cardona in his first role as leading man in an English-speaking film. I will divulge more on all this later when I bring you my review opening day.
But for now, I can’t help being more than a bit fascinated by just how much work goes into a film that purposefully upstages the human actors and instead truly stars man’s best friends. And don’t kid yourself. These canines are professional through and through.
What kind of hours do these dogs keep? How did they get picked to star in this movie? And what did the Human Society have to say? These were just some of the questions I hoped to get answered.
Now, admittedly, I am an animal lover. And among the various other vocations I had considered before landing squarely with journalism, I had toyed with the idea of becoming an animal trainer. In my office, I have often donned the Dr. Doolittle hat to speculate on why some of my coworkers pets behave the way they do. The in-house Animal Whisperer likes to dish out advice, likely because she misses having a furry, domestic friend at home. Sigh. All the more for getting emotionally involved in a movie about dogs.
For this movie to touch your heart and your funny bone, you had best love dogs… even dogs that might happen to wear designer clothes from Rodeo Drive.
Finding the Paw-fect Pooches
How, exactly, do you go about finding the right dog for the part? Well, in this case, director Raja Gosnell (Yours, Mine, and Ours; Scooby-Doo; Never Been Kissed) first started with the voice talents of Drew Barrymore (Chloe), George Lopez (Papi), and others and then went in search of animals that match the personalities and attitudes of their human counterparts.
Beyond a certain look and captivating screen presence, according to lead animal trainer Mike Alexander of Birds & Animals Unlimited (Eight Below), who headed up a team of more than 60 trainers from around the globe to prepare and care for the dogs in the film, what you really need are outgoing, confident, and smart dogs that are quick learners.
Where do you find such “A-list actors” in the canine world? Is it yet another search through stacks of headshots and endless conversations with talent agents?
Actually, in some cases, a visit to the pound will do . Yes, some of the dogs got “discovered” at local animal shelters, including the film’s leading male dog, a mixed-breed Chihuahua named Rusco who plays Papi and who narrowly missed death.
“Papi is one of the greatest Hollywood stories ever in that this dog was a day from being put down and then he is star of this movie,” says comedian George Lopez, who considered playing the voice of the big-eared Chihuahua the perfect role. As he joked, “It helps being a dog your whole life! It prepares you, in a sense.”
Fortunately for Rusco, Alexander was able to adopt him on the spot and is now enjoying a permanent home in sunny California with his trainer. Such is the dog's life, so they say.
This Work is Going to the Dogs
For the leading dog actors, preparation began some 10 to 15 weeks before production. And several of the dogs needed “doubles,” especially those dogs that had more physical roles, including leading lady Chloe and her police dog companion, Delgado. Chloe, who is played by a white Deerhead Chihuahua named Angel, had four doubles, while German shepherd Delgado, whose real name is Samson, had six doubles.
But beyond switching out doubles, there is a decided talent in getting the dog to do exactly what the director needs in order for the scene to be convincing. And there is often the rub.
Working with animals, as with children, can be trying, noted director Gosnell, particularly because they aren’t predictable.
“It was a learning curve for us,” Gosnell noted, “but at the end of the day, you could never really tell. Some of the complicated shots they would get in one or two takes… and then an easy thing like coming in and stopping and turning around would suddenly become difficult. These are dogs. They have a personality and a mind, and sometimes they are just tired and don’t want to do it.”
And then the director wanted actions that were decidedly human. What might be deemed commonplace for actors might be a bit challenging for canines, as the director soon discovered: “One of the hardest things for dogs to do, because it is not natural dog behavior, is to walk side by side and look at each other, which we do with a walk and talk in movies,” he explained.
Add onto that the challenge of working with canines who are attempting to act human in a scene with live-action characters, and the amount of expertise needed increases astronomically.
"The big adjustment was for the human actors trying to act with the dogs in the scene,” said Gosnell. “They are trying to have this emotional conversation, and in the background the trainer is going, ‘Angel, back! Angel, stop, stop, stop!’ – this constant barking of orders from the trainers to the dogs trying to get them to do what they want them to do. These two people are trying to have this face-to-face conversation, and it is really, really hard.”
Keeping Canines Safe
The American Human Association was key in making sure all animals were safe, healthy, and treated well during film production, a fact that Gosnell appreciated.
“Having them on set every minute of the day that we were shooting dogs was helpful to us because it tells the world at large that no animals were mistreated in the making of the movie. It was actually a good thing for us,” he said.
Along with supervision from AHA, the production team tapped into the power of computer-generated images where appropriate to protect the safety of the animals.
“When Delgado jumps on the train and when Delgado jumps off the train, those were way too dangerous to have a dog do, so that was a computer-generated dog. And anytime Chloe is carried in a dog’s mouth, that was a computer-generated toy,” Gosnell said.
And in the scene with some ferocious mountain lions, you can be sure that no cat and dog shared the same literal space. It was all appropriately done in split-screen, with several of the big cats done as CGI.
It’s amazing the amount of effort, expertise, care, and even dogs that went into such a production as Beverly Hills Chihuahua. What you see on screen is just a small portion of the hours of labor and love that went on behind the scenes to bring you a feel-good story.
So, next time you might decide to brush off an animal movie simply because it seems initially too “cutesy” or “shallow,” maybe you should reconsider. Who knows? This tale of itty-bittys might just be the paw-fect fit for a night’s entertainment.
Check out Beverly Hills Chihuahua
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