A monthlong series in which Mr. Ringenberg looks at canine cinema, charitably or otherwise.

Any millennial worth their salt likely has warm memories associated with 1997’s Air Bud, the astonishing tale of Buddy, a Golden Retriever that could make it rain on the basketball court like nobody’s business. Naturally, the following years found the titular canine dominating everything from football (Air Bud: Golden Receiver) to volleyball (Air Bud Spikes Back) as well as a spin-off series for Buddy’s puppies. In fact, it only took until the third entry, 2009’s Space Buddies, for the franchise to reach outer space — a feat that makes the Fast & Furious movies look timid by comparison. 

What, then, is there to do once you’ve gone on swashbuckling adventures (Treasure Buddies), saved Santa Claus (The Search for Santa Paws) and explored the furthest corners of the galaxy? Well, 2016’s Pup Star, released by the Air Bud Entertainment production company, offers a rather baffling response: Make those puppies compete in an American Idol-style singing competition. If you think that sounds downright bizarre, the universe created by director and co-writer Robert Vince (whose 22 directing credits are solely devoted to movies about either chimpanzees or dogs) is startlingly incomprehensible. 

Rather than opt for a world in the vein of Look Who’s Talking, wherein humans cannot hear the dogs communicating with one another, Pup Star is set in a horrific parallel timeline where it’s just commonly accepted that dogs can speak. This is due to the development of a product called Evolution Dog Treats, which when eaten by dogs gives them the miraculous ability to speak. In an Evolution Dog Treats commercial, it touts that the treats are made from five “all-natural” ingredients and ends with the tagline “Because evolution is only natural.” This brief ad leaves some troubling implications dangling in the air, such as: If dogs are naturally evolving to speak like humans, then have humans in this world actually evolved from dogs? If so, is owning and domesticating a dog actually some sadistic form of imprisoning your own kind? These are questions with answers undoubtedly explored in subsequent sequels Pup Star: Better 2Gether, Pup Star: World Tour and Puppy Star Christmas.

The story here follows Tiny, a Yorkshire Terrier with dreams of hitting it big by earning her very own record contract as the final contestant on the Pup Star television show. Just how music executives draft a recording deal for a dog is sadly yet another unexplored avenue. Of course, Tiny is kidnapped by a malicious dog pound owner whose ingenious scheme involves… selling the dog back to the family? It’s difficult to imagine how such a plan could go wrong.

The story hits all the beats you might expect: a little girl lying in a hospital bed with an unspecified disease; a gang of misfit mutts who help Tiny find her way home; and the stuck-up previous winner on Pup Star, Bark, whose ego has overshadowed his love of singing. Frankly, the narrative only exists to string together the musical numbers, which are like a low-rent cousin to last year’s unfortunate Lion King remake

Unlike that Disney behemoth, however, the dogs here are entirely real, and the film employs some crude CG work over their mouths for the singing effect. And how, one might wonder, can a dog have any sort of stage presence when singing. Well, during the performance sequences, the dog will shuffle awkwardly to one side, and then Vince plays the shot in reverse to make the dog look like it’s moving back and forth. As you can see below, the effect is seamless.

If there’s any morbid pleasure to be had from Pup Star, it’s during the singing competition sequences. The songs themselves are both obscenely saccharine and miserably generic, sounding like an AI tried to make a Kidz Bop album. Then again, if you’re making a direct-to-video movie about singing dogs to appease 7-year-olds, the end result might not resemble Whitney Houston. 

That said, experiencing Pup Star as a 28-year-old felt like sitting in a ball pit at your local Chuck E. Cheese. It’s uncomfortable, possibly illegal and simply not meant for grown adults.