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We’re in an age where inspirational talking dog movies are a thing. A Dog’s Purpose kicked it all off a couple years ago, only to let A Dog’s Way Home and A Dog’s Journey carry the torch forward into the future for the sub-genre. The results, while varied, have usually limited material to a neighborhood that grates more than it warms the heart.
This atmosphere has led to the basic assumption that Simon Curtis' The Art of Racing in the Rain would be just as emotionally manipulative as its spiritual predecessors, as it appears as yet another movie promising life lessons from a dog’s point of view. Thankfully, and with a huge sigh of relief, however, this latest example of canine cinema is the clear front runner in the race to for best in show.
The story finds Enzo (voiced by Kevin Costner), a golden retriever, reflecting on his life as a dog, from his days as a puppy up to the current day. Through his tale we learn of the man that adopted him (Milo Ventamiglia) and how their lives grow and expand through love, heartache, and in the face of every obstacle that gets in their way.
The downside to director Simon Curtis’ The Art of Racing in the Rain is the fact that the film is still very much a simple, Hallmark-ready meditation on life and all of its standard issues. It does little to nothing to reinvent the wheel - though this is something that may ultimately be appreciated by die-hards of the genre.
What The Art of Racing in the Rain manages to do to prove itself superior to its predecessors, though, is play the cards in its deck in the sweetest, most professional way possible. While the story is very similar like-minded releases, the emotional beats aren’t milked to ridiculous degrees.
A lot of that comes from the performances from Kevin Costner and Milo Ventamiglia as Enzo and Denny, respectively. Even playing the voice of a dog, Kevin Costner’s trademark charm and dry wit comes through in a fashion so effective, you feel the presence of the soul The Art of Racing in the Rain wants his character to have.
Equal credit needs to go to Milo Ventamiglia and Amanda Seyfried, as they are extremely adept at selling their romantic subplot in the film’s course of events. Not only is their romance written really well, but the consistently supportive nature of their household is a refreshing change from the melodramatics that usually fill a film like The Art of Racing in the Rain.
It’s that difference that also leads the film to makes missteps, though, as its pacing is a bit too fast and breezy in its earlier moments - making a big bit of dramatic weight dropped in the middle of the movie feel awkward. It causes The Art of Racing in the Rain to lose points for falling into some of the same old traps the genre lays for all who attempt to navigate it.
At the same time, that’s where the performances of Costner, Ventamiglia, and Seyfried really count. While The Art of Racing in the Rain’s story fails in some sections, the craft of the actors involved doesn’t. So while it’s not a consistent experience, it’s way more watchable than those other dog movies.
Cynics may go into this film dreading another version of the same old tear factory, but The Art of Racing in the Rain does just enough to turn you into a smiling, tearful mess at the end of the film. It earns its tears through actual emotional connections, rather than cheap shorthand. If you like racing, dogs, and romance, this one is an sweet slice of apple pie for your heart.