Pet owners spend an inordinate amount of time imagining, ascribing, even acting out the behaviors of their animals. “Strays” feels like the natural — if comically exaggerated — extension of that impulse, chronicling the personality of a border terrier named Reggie as he and three canine pals make an arduous trek back to Reggie’s owner, along with all of the attendant misunderstandings and misinterpretations about the human world around them.
Produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, written by “American Vandal” co-creator Dan Perrault and directed by “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar” director Josh Greenbaum, “Strays” balances human expectations and lost-in-translation animal experiences for a smart, suitably raunchy adventure that should resonate even if you don’t have a furry friend waiting at home for you afterward.
Will Ferrell, firmly in Buddy the Elf mode, provides the voice of Reggie, a naive terrier who worships his abusive, largely despicable owner Doug (Will Forte). Doug kept Reggie after his ex-girlfriend caught him cheating, and spends his days tormenting the dog, whose only crime was finding the evidence. After Doug drives Reggie to a neighboring city and drops him in an alley with the assumption he won’t be able to find his way home, Reggie begins to gently wonder if the love they share isn’t quite as mutual as he once believed. His skepticism is further encouraged after meeting Bug (Jamie Foxx), a Boston terrier with a deep-rooted mistrust for humans who teaches Reggie about the joys of being a stray.
Introduced to Australian shepherd Maggie (Isla Fisher) and therapy Great Dane Hunter (Randall Park), Reggie goes on a stray bender with Bug before deciding that he wants to return to Doug — though not for a tearful reunion, but for revenge. The other dogs agree to guide him through the unfamiliar and hazardous terrain between the big city where he was dropped off and Doug’s dilapidated small-town digs, encountering various other fauna (including Dennis Quaid) that bewilder and perplex them. As the quartet makes its descent upon Doug’s home, Reggie’s resolve to follow through on his mission begins to falter, prompting each of them to question who they are as a dog and what sort of relationship they actually want with their human counterparts.
Perrault’s script conceives the world of Reggie and his companions quite literally from the ground up, looking at the choices of humans and making their own assumptions about what they’re doing and why, be it a game of fetch or chronic masturbation. Until he encounters Bug, Reggie loves Doug unconditionally — either ignoring, rationalizing or accepting blame for the human’s misanthropic self-absorption — and it’s this psychological aspect which gives the film a uniqueness among “talking animal” movies and a very contemporary resonance at a time when people are more aware than ever about the diagnoses and mechanics of interpersonal relationships. Hard though it may be for some viewers to watch as Doug emotionally mistreats Reggie, the movie astutely helps the little pup pivot as he realizes that every dog deserves to hear they’re a good boy or girl, and that they’re not bad just because they don’t.
Greenbaum is more than a ringleader behind the camera. Though he stages some really fun sequences that hilariously leverage the differences between the dogs (in particular involving the well-endowed but insecure Hunter), he also keeps the animal chaos on a short enough leash to maintain those emotional throughlines. As producers, Lord and Miller have always had a great sense of how far to let a comedic bit go before pulling back, and their touch here is palpable as the dogs indulge in drug trips and scatological digressions that are very funny but almost always exercise the audience’s feelings as much as their funny bones. That the movie wraps up its business in just over 90 minutes is also an enormous virtue, but the fact that Greenbaum and his collaborators elicit genuine emotion while also racing through some very inventive beats for a road trip comedy is a testament to how expertly they handle the material.
As for the cast, all of the voice actors feel like pinch hitters — easy with a joke or comeback, great at improvising to match the behavior of their four-legged counterpart — with Ferrell at the center of it providing the perfectly ebullient vocal accompaniment to Reggie’s dopey, cheerful little face. Meanwhile, Forte is appropriately loathsome as only the once and future MacGruber can be, while also seeming to recognize that he’s fifth on the call sheet. But beyond the (possible) insights these performances provide about the way that dogs process the world around them (regarding the mailman, one of them says, “you smell like too many homes and I can’t trust that”), “Strays” manages to avoid the ranks of other lost-animal movies, or even this summer’s thickening slate of R-rated comedies, because it illuminates deeper and more relatable truths about how humans can navigate their own relationships.