‘Marmaduke’ in Purgatory
Another dull adaptation of the comics’s most boring dog
May 6th saw the release of Marmaduke, the latest exclusive Netflix offering in the animated film department, based on the 68-year old newspaper comic of the same title about a Great Dane that is very large. A far cry from the obvious polish of Vivo and The Mitchells Vs. The Machines from last year, Marmaduke comes courtesy of One Cool Animation, a subsidiary of the Hong Kong film company One Cool Group. Mark A.Z. Dippe, best known for his deliberately dark and disturbing 1997 movie adaptation of the Spawn comic book, directs. Since Spawn, Dippe has worked almost exclusively in children’s animation, including three straight-to-DVD Garfield movies and two similarly little-known animated Boxcar Children movies, which somehow managed to land Martin Sheen and J.K. Simmons in speaking roles.
J.K. Simmons also appears in the 2022 version of Marmaduke as Zeus, an Afghan Hound that is Marmaduke’s rival in a champion dog show competition. It’s a smug, low-energy performance in a movie that’s otherwise just mostly dull. What little social media hype Marmaduke has managed ahead of its release has mainly been around the bewildering human character designs, which read like a mix of the Slenderman and Pixar Mom Dump Truck Ass memes, highlighting the extremities of both.
I can’t imagine that anyone would deliberately try to mix these two things together, yet I’m also at a loss as to what possible animation technique would naturally create such a style. The characters look nothing like their newspaper comic equivalents and for all practical purposes might as well be original creations. I’m using that word in a very technical sense here, as they’re just nineties-era sitcom family archetypes instead of fifties-era sitcom family archetypes.
Having seen the full movie, I can also confirm that the moderately interesting outline of these character designs is the most interesting part of Marmaduke. Which really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Marmaduke is famous for being a dog that is large and gets into trouble. There’s only just barely enough of a premise there for the original newspaper comic strip, which persists to this day despite the death of the original creator in 2015. Even the eighties-era Marmaduke cartoon had to share space with Heathcliff, since there’s only so much you can do with the concept of a large dog exists.
To the extent Marmaduke is famous for anything, it’s for being a long-running newspaper comic strip that had dubious relevance even back when newspaper comics themselves were relevant. Probably the most genuinely memorable Marmaduke has ever been in the last thirty years was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gag in Daria where Jake opines that the family should just put Marmaduke to sleep. Even attempts at parodying Marmaduke can’t get past the sheer banality of the content. Joe Mathlete Explains Marmaduke is obscure compared to projects like Garfield Minus Garfield and the Dysfunctional Family Circus- even granting that the latter two aren’t exactly famous.
The GoComics page for Marmaduke does have a healthy comment section of people who mostly seem to just use Marmaduke as a discussion prompt for conversing about the funny things that large dogs do. This really isn’t an on-fire intellectual property with an eager fanbase that’s clamoring for a long-form adaptation of the Marmaduke franchise. This didn’t stop Twentieth Century Fox from releasing a live action film some twelve years ago, a movie which people remember, to the extent they remember it at all, as being quite awful.
Fox presumably put out that movie for the same reason Netflix put out this one. If you want to make a movie about a large dog, best to do it with an existing intellectual property. The Hollywood craze for remakes no one ever asked for was a source of serious mockery throughout the earlier part of this century. So it’s a bit odd seeing Netflix take up this mantle, while simultaneously wondering why no one is taking them seriously anymore in the face of plunging subscriber numbers.
Marmaduke the movie hardly even resembles Marmaduke the comic. It’s referential for the sake of being referential, a weirdly recursive loop about how increasingly abstract and recursive so much of our culture has become. Also it’s just a bad movie, in such a way I can barely even remember what the jokes were supposed to be. That hair conditioner for dogs exists? That Marmaduke needs to poop really bad after he eats a lot? Oh, Marmaduke does kind of break the animated movie format by having a giant dance party as the anti-climax rather than the epilogue. Just about any bad, generic kid’s movie plot device you can think of is in Marmaduke somewhere, firmly establishing the movie as being mostly boring despite accidentally being kind of interesting in mostly meta-analytical ways.