Netflix for Kids: Pup Star
Nathanael Smith | On 29, Jan 2017
Netflix for Kids is VODzilla.co’s monthly column that sends a grown man without kids into the barrel of the streaming service’s kids catalogue and searches for morsels of goodness at the bottom. Today, our childless adult writer tackles a movie about singing animals. No, not Sing: Pup Star.
One of the strange things about the existence of the film Sing is the fact that it seems to have missed the zeitgeist by almost 10 years. No one cares about singing competitions any more. Sure, The X-Factor was big back in its day, but the peak of its cultural relevance is long, long gone. A film about an American Idol-style singing competition would have felt cheap and hackneyed even back then. In 2017, it’s just baffling. Clearly, the money makers at Illumination Entertainment aren’t the only ones behind the times – while the thought of watching Sing is taxing, the idea of watching Pup Star on Netflix is existentially horrifying.
The film is the product of Air Bud Entertainment, a fairly new studio built on the money and name recognition of a film about a dog playing basketball. They specialise in films with animals that talk via CGI mouth animation (read the plot synopsis for Russell Madness for a giggle). Pup Star is the story of a singing competition and a little Yorkie who dreams of winning it. If that premise doesn’t fill you with dread, then the execution of the idea will be the thing that breaks you.
Part of the problem is that, although the dog mouths are digitised, the rest of the performing is done by actual dogs who, while well trained, are still limited in what they can actually achieve. So the musical numbers (and there are many) largely consist of a dog moving from side-to-side or standing still. To compensate for this, the makers of Pup Star compensate with unimaginably terrible editing. Half-second shots are looped to make it look like repeated movement and the camera jumps in weird angles, disorienting the viewer with a barrage of nonsensical cuts. Perhaps the director was trying to break form in the style of the French New Wave, but it’s more likely that the film is just incompetently made.
Then there are the curious racial stereotypes used for the supporting cast of dogs. It’s probably best not to think about what Ziggy Marley must have felt voicing a character named “Dog Gnarly” and adding “mon” to the end of every sentence. Worse still is the apparently Indian dog, Raj, whose every sentence has some kind of reference to curry, Bollywood or a Hindu god. To wit: “She sings like a Shiva!” “Oh my dear Vishnu!” Repeat ad infinitum. Throw in a strange backstory about Evolution Dog Treats being the reason the animals can talk and the repeated use of the terrible pun “like a rolling bone” and you have a film that can induce audience winces at an alarming rate.
The 90s were built on animal movies. Heck, NFK has even covered the, erm, delightful Zeus and Roxanne. There’s inherent appeal for children in stories about animals doing things like flying to Canada or taking a long journey home. So how have the team at Air Bud made something so lifeless and painful? The problem lies in the decision to have CG mouths making them talk. It’s an anthropomorphic step too far and, crucially, it stops the animals being cute and makes them annoying. That’s the biggest crime of all – making dogs annoying. (Browse the Twitter feed of We Rate Dogs for a better and more fulfilling time.)
One way to make Pup Star slightly more fun is to imagine it as being a near-dystopian film, a mid-point in a Planet of the Apes-style takeover of the world by these talking dogs. There’s a canine bounty hunter called Kano who treats humans with disdain. All the celebrities in this world are dogs and they refer to the humans in the same way we refer to our pets. Pup Star 2 is due out in 2018; perhaps they’ll build on this world and we’ll see the continuation of this gradual subjugation of humans. More likely, however, is that it will simply be another cacophony of horror and another step towards the actual end of the world.
Pup Star is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.