“Strays” is 2023’s latest effort to revive R-rated comedies at the box office and should particularly appeal to anyone who was 13 or younger when “Dr. Dolittle 2” and “Cats & Dogs” were back-to-back hits in the summer of 2001. To that generational cohort, which also grew up on “Air Bud” and “Homeward Bound,” the movie’s MPAA classification promises a subversive take on childhood staples. Dialing the nostalgic factor up a few more notches are Will Ferrell and Jamie Foxx, who are predictably hilarious as lead pups Reggie and Bug. Less expected is how deftly this buddy/revenge flick about phallic amputation manages to prod our emotions and remind us that raunch and heart are not mutually exclusive.

Reggie (Ferrell) is a Border Terrier unwittingly trapped in a toxic relationship with his sadistic owner, Doug (Will Forte). He only kept him after a break-up to spite his ex-girlfriend. Mistaking neglect for affection, Reggie can’t help but come running back to this porn- and pot-addicted manchild each time he’s abandoned during what he thinks is simply another round of a harmless game the two are playing called “Fetch and Fuck”, the latter part of the name owing to Doug’s exasperated expression when Reggie inevitably returns and drops the same raggedy tennis ball at his feet.

The game’s increasing difficulty, Reggie believes, is proof of Doug’s faith in his intelligence. Finally, alone in a city alley miles from home, he has no choice but to face the cold, hard truth that he’s unwanted.

Helping Reggie embrace his newfound status as a stray are Bug (Foxx), a cynical and foul-mouthed Boston Terrier, Maggie (Isla Fisher), a sexually frustrated Australian Shepherd whose vapid owner has replaced her with an adorable Pomeranian puppy (Greta Lee), and Hunter (Randall Park), a depressed Great Dane who failed the police academy and now works as a senior-care therapy dog.

After realizing that “shitbag” isn’t actually a term of endearment, Reggie resolves to find Doug once more and give him a dose of his own medicine by taking away the thing he loves most–his dick. “Strays” may be juvenile, but it isn’t brainless. And even when the humor flags, it’s seldom repetitive. Though poop jokes obviously come with the territory, they are less frequent than expected.

Instead of overly relying on the obvious, “Strays” maximizes the potential of its premise by placing Reggie and his new pals in distinct situations that each highlight a different facet of navigating the world as, well, a dog: At an outdoor bar, they plan their next meal by scoping out the clumsiest pair of hands; during a fireworks display at a carnival, the stark difference between human and canine hearing lends itself to a joke about religious guilt following an act of petty larceny; flight by way of a hungry bald eagle’s talons awakens Bug’s sense of mortality, and forage in the woods leads to a psychedelic trip on mushrooms that further expands our furry friends’ burgeoning self-awareness.

Strays (2023) Movie Review
Will Ferrell, Jamie Foxx, Isla Fisher, and Randall Park in Strays (2023)

The movie’s philosophical insights are rudimentary at best. But they do imbue “Strays” with more depth than it probably deserves. When the proceedings take an emotional turn, the results are pretty poignant. However, “Strays’” creative team knows what you’ve come to see and delivers a satisfyingly balls-to-the-wall finale (no pun intended). A fitting needle drop that shouldn’t be spoiled sweetens the deal.

The film’s structure inspires admiration for its use of setpieces to move the characters along their literal and spiritual journey, wasting no time and building successfully on themes and gags established at the outset. That’s a tall order in light of haphazardly assembled offerings like “Joy Ride,” which lobs one throwaway joke at the audience after another to sustain a high LPM (Laughs Per Minute) rate with little to no regard for narrative cohesion. That being said, Strays’  concept occasionally runs into issues with consistency.

The dogs’ perception of human speech is so poor that Reggie can’t tell Doug wants to get rid of him, but at the same time, it is acute enough that they understand everything the people around them are saying. However, that’s beside the point and shouldn’t interfere too much with your ability to enjoy the humorous writing by “American Vandal” and “Players” creator Dan Perrault. Also, meriting notice is the visual effects by Cinesite, which do a mostly seamless job of blending with performances by actual canines. Where digital tricks falter, all-around stellar voice acting and strong editing pick up the slack.

Is “Strays” worth a trip to the theater? Without the involvement of Ferrell, Foxx, and producers Chris Miller and Phil Lord, it is hard to see how this entertaining but forgettable late-summer diversion would have avoided going directly to streaming, especially considering that Eva Longoria’s “Flamin’ Hot” was dumped unceremoniously on Hulu despite boasting some outstanding cinematography. But at a time when so many comedies feel half-baked, “Strays” gets an easy recommendation for being one that doesn’t skimp on the punchlines.

Read More: The 20 Best Dog Movies of All Time

Strays (2023) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Wikipedia
Strays (2023) Movie Voice Cast: Will Ferrell, Jamie Foxx, Isla Fisher, Randall Park, Brett Gelman, Will Forte
Strays (2023) Movie Genre: Comedy, Runtime: 1h 33m
Where to watch Strays

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