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Dogging it in Hollywood Recent successes unleash an era of pooch protagonist


Hollywood, as we all know, is a thumping engine of social change, always a step or two out in front of events, shaping our society as often as it reflects us. No other medium of communication has quite the power of the movies, and no art form is nearly so popular; the combination is wondrous and terrible to behold.

So when Hollywood sniffs out a trend, the rest of us pay attention. What new theme have the elites discovered?

Dogs. They are going to make many movies about dogs.

I know what you're thinking: This means hounds. This means the scraggly litter of mutts that loped across our marquees this summer, movie dogs nearly every one. Hollywood will simply make more of the same.

That's probably true, too. Hollywood will make many more movies that are dogs. But Hollywood will also turn its considerable energies to a baying pack of movies in which the key selling point is that the star actually is a dog.

According to Variety, the "industry" trade bible, this trend was inspired by the success of two recent movies with dog stars: "Beethoven," in which the estimable Charles Grodin played second lead to a St. Bernard in the story of a dog on the lam from an evil vet; and "Bingo," the hound's-eye-view sendup of kids' movies, featuring a runaway circus dog so smart that after he rescues a drowning child, he knows enough to administer artificial respiration, too.

"Beethoven," Mr. Grodin's talk-show complaints notwithstanding (he "promoted" the film by complaining of his role), was a big hit; Variety says it may well become the most profitable film of 1992 by the time the year is over. "Bingo" was a dud in theatrical release here but has proven quite popular overseas and on video.

Naturally, "Beethoven 2" is already afoot. Mr. Grodin will again anchor the human side of the cast, but the real star will be the 200-pound St. Bernard. And that's just the beginning. Coming up:

* "Man's Best Friend," about genetically enhanced guard dogs on a murderous tear.

* "Ace Ventura, Pet Detective," in which, presumably, McGruff goes undercover.

* "Cyrano," the story of a drug-sniffing dog who's so good that the cartel puts out a contract on him, whereupon he's adopted by an unwary family as part of a canine witness-relocation program.

* "The Trial of King Boots," the latest documentary from Errol Morris ("The Thin Blue Line," "A Brief History of Time"), examining the true case of a dog put on trial for murder.

* "Family Dog," coming to television.

* There is talk that "Look Who's Talking 3" won't involve talking babies (the babies having long since grown to the age where their speech is no novelty, but an annoying fact of life). The new protagonists? Talking dogs.

And these are just the projects that have made the trades. Who knows what people are planning?

Perhaps most important, dogs work cheap. So do their trainers, at least compared with the stars of big-budget melodramas that don't make anywhere near what "Beethoven" took in.

Dogs have no leverage, either. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the Terminator. But who knows who Beethoven is? He could be Schatzi, he could be Spot.

The dark side of this emerging trend may be expressed in a single word, and that word is "Benji." All too often Hollywood's way with dog movies is shameless Disneyfication -- Benji saves his master, Benji saves baby cougars in the few weeks remaining before the kittens are big enough to go for Benji's throat, Benji nobly resists temptation to eat Timmy's homework. (That last one could have been Lassie, actually -- most Hollywood dogs run together after a while.)

The bright side is that "Bingo," at least, showed flashes of imagination; he was smart, but not that smart (when warned by his mistress to "run for cover" from an armed man, Bingo returned dragging a bedspread).

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