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Furry friends amp up the cuteness

Clint Eastwood's done it. So has a young Kurt Russell, and a pre-presidential Ronald Reagan. Ditto lesser luminaries Don Knotts and Matt Leblanc.

Clint Eastwood's done it. So has a young Kurt Russell, and a pre-presidential Ronald Reagan. Ditto lesser luminaries Don Knotts and Matt Leblanc.

This week it's Kevin James' turn to step into the ring, the latest in a long list of human actors co-starring alongside animals onscreen.

In The Zookeeper James plays Griffin Keyes, a lonely zoo employee who is completely clueless when it comes to interacting with his own species. When Griffin decides that he needs to get a life outside the zoo in order to find a mate, his loyal animal friends speak up and start dispensing dating and relationship advice, Dr. Phil style.

Starring alongside animals is an acting gamble; historically, such a role is either a stepping-stone to stardom (look how it worked out for Reagan) or purgatory for comedians like Jason Alexander (Dunston Checks In), George Lopez (Beverly Hills Chihuahua, Marmaduke), Bill Murray (Garfield: Tale of Two Kitties) and Eddie Murphy (Dr. Doolittle). Jim Carrey in Mr. Popper's Penguins, anyone?

The pundits from South Park have already weighed in, in a sketch where Stan was unable to distinguish between an ad for The Zookeeper and a turd in a microwave: "They both look like turds about to be reheated to me" says Stan.

But movies featuring our furry friends are more popular than ever, and not just for the kiddie demographic. Romantic comedies in particular frequently feel the need to insert animal companions into their plotlines, presumably because sappy soliloquies are less grating when our heroine is addressing a malti-poo.

The cuteness factor of such scenarios have been amped up, too. It's not enough to dress our pets in couture; in more than one rom-com last year, the dogs were not just cute, they were handicapped, too. (Jennifer Lopez's rescue dog in The Backup Plan was nattily dressed AND had to use a scooter to get around).

Blame the infantilization of our culture or blame the Taco Bell chihuahua: it's clear that as the economy and world events get more stressful, we as an audience are eager to check our intellect at the door and watch movies about talking monkeys.

It started with The Incredible Journey and segued to The Adventures of Milo and Otis (arguably the cutest live animal movie around). But at what point are the animals more interesting than the human leads? Now that animal antics and expressions can be computer generated and manipulated, we don't have to rely on animal wranglers to coax the best out of a furry performer. Plus there's a lot less poop on the set.

In fact, with the motion capture process and ever-advancing technology, there may soon be no need for high-priced human actors at all.

Voicing animated characters is still a respectable paycheque for the likes of James Earl Jones, Angelina Jolie, Tom Hanks, Jeremy Irons and Reese Witherspoon. The following, however, is verboten, at least from this critic's point of view: dancing with anyone other than your own species; heeding relationship advice from animals; spooning with animals, and/or playing any professional sport or game other than "fetch" with animals. (Being under the influence, naturally, makes all of the above OK.)

And so, actors everywhere, take note: a dog may be man's best friend, but he makes for a poor choice of co-star. And unless you want to see the Best Actress award go to a bitch (the four-legged kind) stick to scripts with human actors.