Marmaduke is so self-evidently bad that slamming it would be tautological. No, what concerns me is that this superpowered dog movie wasn't made for modern audiences. It's a crumbling monument to our own execrable pursuit of entertainment.
I knew something was terribly, terribly wrong with the film adaptation of Brad Anderson's comic strip when the trades were reporting that Marmaduke had been euthanized in the box office. Talking animal flicks are all the rage these days. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel made almost $450 million worldwide. Barring G.I. Joe, G-Force was the biggest war movie of 2009.
Seriously, it's nigh impossible to fuck up a talking animal film. You could barge into a studio meeting dressed as Klaus Barbie with your schwanz waggling, but as long as you screamed "I HAVE A FIVE-STEP PLAN TO REBOOT FRANCIS THE TALKING MULE," nobody would call the cops. If Nobel Peace Prize voting was held tomorrow, Amy the gorilla from Congo would run away the write-in vote. Our cultural barometer is permanently stuck on "Michigan J. Frog."
And yet, Marmaduke was absolutely tanking. $11 million last weekend? That couldn't be right. This required further investigation.
I'm going to spare you a synopsis of the film — all you need to know is that the guy from Pushing Daisies, Kitty from Arrested Development, and William H. Macy (who appears to be perpetually on the verge of tears) yell at Marmaduke a lot. Also, Marmaduke surfs. Really, that's all there is to it.
(At this point, some of you may be wondering why this a scifi site is reviewing Marmaduke. A sentient Great Dane who holds his family hostage falls well within the boundaries of speculative fiction — it's more or less like Harlan Ellison's A Boy and His Dog, but without the semen farming. Also, it was agreed in our editorial meeting that someone had to sit on the grenade. I lost that discussion.)
What did I discover when I saw Marmaduke? Incredibly, here was a film wasn't just narrowcasted to one or two key demographics — it was seemingly marketed towards zero demographics. Now, I realize that it sounds totally improbable that a studio would release a $50 million dollar film for a nonexistent audience, but hear me out. I've identified three core audiences Marmaduke should have done gangbusters with (and why it didn't). Those audiences are:
1.) Marmaduke readers.
2.) Post-modern Marmaduke enthusiasts.
3.) Children, ages 4-10 (the PG demographic).
Demographic 1: Marmaduke readers
I have no idea what traits constitute a 100% sincere Marmaduke fan, as I've never met one. Similarly, I have no idea what metric is used to gauge comic strip popularity, as a newspaper comic reader could very well be reading any and every comic on the page the moment they open the funnies.
Say you're a die-hard Funky Winkerbean fan. Like, a balls-to-the-walls Winkermaniac. The moment you unfold the funnies, I have no idea if you're enjoying your daily 30 seconds of Winker-time or if your eyes have strayed to The Family Circus (where for the last 90 years Bil Keane has recycled the same 500 or so strips, only pausing to sporadically replace references to The Starland Vocal Band with Nickelback). Imagine tuning into Lost, and eight episodes of Automan suddenly pockmark your TV screen. How would you calculate the Nielsens for that? That's what the average American funnies page is — a burst dam of casual, nostalgia-blotto nonsense.
I guess you could gauge Marmaduke's popularity using trade paperback sales (his Amazon page isn't exactly hopping) or those rare, deranged letters to the editor (i.e., "HOLY FUCKING SHIT DO I LOVE MARMADUKE!"), but I'm pretty sure that — due to the vagaries of layout — the comic syndicates have no clue what exact comics people are reading. Let's not forget that newspapers are on the decline — particularly those small-town papers that would carry Marmaduke — so polling seems kind of moot. I guess you could use web presence as a yardstick of Marmaduke's popularity, but appears as if the comic's outspoken fans hit the wall with twine and two tin cans.
All of this makes the decision to pour $50 million into a Marmaduke feature film all the more perplexing, as you have no reliable data if any Marmaduke fans actually exist.
Also, 86-year-old Marmaduke Brad Anderson cartoonist has been writing Marmaduke since 1955. There's a good chance most of the first generation of Marmaduke readers are dead. I say this with absolutely zero smarminess.
Demographic 2: Post-modern Marmaduke enthusiasts
I note the distinction between first and second generation Marmaduke fans, as Marmaduke has experienced an internet renaissance as a Dadaist comedy idol. This is due mostly to Joe Mathlete Explains Today's Marmaduke and the internet's ability to give Marmaduke readers a forum to express their collective confusion. I chalk up a large degree of the anti-comedy to creator Brad Anderson. Rather than make some ageist crack about how Anderson's been writing Marmaduke since the Devonian Period, I'll tip my hat to the man. Doing the same thing day-in, day-out for 50 years is hard, and creating a one-panel cartoon about a misbehaving Great Dane is downright Sisyphean. The man ran out of jokes three days in. Slogging on for another ~20,000 is awe-inspiring, but the quality control's gonna go at some point.
So given that we have no way of determining whether there are any sincere/alive/corporeal Marmaduke readers, wouldn't it have behooved filmmakers to create a Marmaduke film that apes the anti-humor of comic? Wouldn't you watch 90 minutes of a Great Dane jumping on couches and his owners screaming listlessly into the off-panel aether? Let's look at the June 6, 2010 Marmaduke — this was released the weekend the film debuted.
Does it make a lick of sense? No. Is that what pomo Marmaduke are looking for? Absolutely — this comic strip is a form of ritualized insanity that is foisted upon newspaper readers 7 days a week. Does the dull-ass film bear any resemblance to the scattershot anti-humor of the comic? No. For example, the moviegoer never sees Marmaduke in a pimp hat. Is Brad Anderson saying that Hollywood celebrities dress like Rudy Ray Moore, or is this a gamely jab at that mincing dandy Louis Quatorze? I honestly cannot say.*
*I promised no ageist cracks. I lied.
Demographic 3: Children, ages 4-10 (the PG demographic).
Either my theater was filled with the saddest children in the world, or Marmaduke flat out sucks as a kids' movie. Any good child psychologist knows that kids have only two emotions — LAUGHTER and FEAR — and if they're not amused, they're crippled with primordial terror. I didn't hear a single hoop or holler, so I have no choice but to believe that the tots were silently weeping into their Junior Mints.
Okay, so maybe my case study was flawed — maybe the local chapter of the Junior Stoics' League had bought out the theater — but c'mon. When I was that age, my folks had to add Thorazine to my Basic 4 every time I watched The Adventures of Milo and Otis.
So if Marmaduke was made for absolutely nobody, why was it made?
Given that Marmaduke is a movie nobody asked for, nobody enjoyed, and nobody will remember, why was it made? Dear readers, I believe this film to be a cinematic time capsule, a veritable cross section of a sick society that pours $50 million and countless man-hours into a cultural artifact nobody gives a shit about, like the Phoenicians' idol to Ba'al. The film will find a shelf life on DVD and lie undisturbed in NetFlix warehouses until civilization dies. When the smoke clears, our descendants will find this film hidden in a bunker somewhere, nod their heads sagely, and worship it with their leper tongues.
Imagine if Percy Shelley's Ozymandias had taken a hammer to his own giant statue and said, "I am smashing this to show future generations what a blowhard jackhole I was." That's what Marmaduke is. It is a love letter to the end times, a shit-eating postcard to the post-apocalypse, and unabashedly proof positive that our society at its pith has no moral or aesthetic compass. Our culture is Marmaduke's terroir, and like him, we are all pretending to be human.