Anyone who’s ever owned a four-legged friend has wondered what’s going on inside their furry head. There has to be more than just tennis balls, bones and chasing squirrels, right? “The Art of Racing in the Rain” is the latest film to try and answer that question, giving a voice to man’s best friend as he accompanies his owner through life.
Based on Garth Stein’s 2008 novel of the same name, “The Art of Racing” follows Enzo (Kevin Costner, voice), a wise pup belonging to struggling race car driver Denny (Milo Ventimiglia). At one point Denny says that Enzo is “more human than dog,” and thanks to Costner’s enlightened narration, audiences can see that, too.
The film begins with Enzo nearing the end of his time, before flashing back to relive the glory days. Life is good for Denny and Enzo – the duo spends most of their time at the race track, where the pup is mesmerized by his owner’s driving. When Denny meets Eve (Amanda Seyfried), things quickly change. The two get married, move to a new house, have a daughter named Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), and completely flip Enzo’s world upside down. When Eve falls terminally-ill, her parents, Maxwell (Martin Donovan) and Trish (Kathy Baker), come into the picture to help care for her, but once she passes away, their intentions become more sinister. Maxwell, who never understood his daughter’s infatuation with Denny, wages a custody battle against his son-in-law to try and take Zoe away from him, citing a minor altercation as evidence of Denny’s unfit state. With only his faithful pup left by his side, Denny must translate what he’s learned on the racetrack into his real life if he hopes to ever regain custody of his daughter.
The subject matter alone in “The Art of Racing” is enough to get anyone emotional. I mean, for a PG-rated film, we’re dealing with some pretty traumatic stuff here: the death of a parent, a child custody battle, and, of course, the death of a pet. For that reason alone it’s worth bringing a handful of tissues to the theater, but beyond its core components, “The Art of Racing,” lacked a certain gravitas.
It all starts with Ventimiglia, who delivers a severely underwhelming performance as the film’s human lead. In a story that sinks its characters to some of the lowest lows of humanity, Ventimiglia comes across as surprisingly indifferent to his circumstances. The “This Is Us” star rarely evokes any compelling emotional reactions, which makes it hard to believe he’s really suffering. What Ventimiglia lacks, his human co-star Seyfried makes up for, carrying the brunt of the film’s emotional weight in her limited screen time.
As heavy as “The Art of Racing” may be, it at times verges on melodrama, particularly due to Costner’s solemn narration. Enzo believes he is destined to be reincarnated as a man, equipped with a mind just as intelligent as his human counterparts, but sometimes it would be nice for the pup to sit back chew on a bone without carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. For a family-friendly dog movie in the vein of “Marley & Me” and “A Dog’s Purpose,” “The Art of Racing” is missing the canine’s signature fun-loving nature.
For the most part director Simon Curtis’ film adaptation stays true to its source material, but anyone who’s read Stein’s novel will quickly notice one major on-screen difference. In the film, the grandparents use a minor altercation between Denny and Maxwell to try and leverage their custody battle, but in the book, it’s far less PG. Instead, after Eve’s death a teenage relative attempts to seduce Denny against his will while he’s in a near-unconscious state, but Denny quickly awakens and turns it down. Months later while looking for dirt to help their case, the grandparents force the teenage girl to falsely accuse Denny of sexual abuse.
The decision to dramatically alter this element of the story is understandable. To have a situation like that unfold on page is one thing, but there’s no logical way to present it on-screen, much less in a PG-rated film. However, getting charged with minor assault for accidentally causing someone to fall is drastically different than getting charged for child molestation – and the two accusations would affect a person differently. If the film had included the books’ original storyline, it would have allowed for Ventimiglia to explore much darker subject matter and could have potentially resulted in a far more compelling performance.
“The Art of Racing in the Rain” is far more weighty than your average dog movie, dealing with somber but realistic topics. It’s may not be as feel-good throughout the film as most of its canine contemporaries, but its ending – and many moments in between – certainly pack an emotional and satisfying punch. At the very least, it’s still 109 minutes of cute puppies.
Star Rating: 3 out of 5
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.