Next time you take Rover out for a walk, you'd do well to remember that dog parks are basically "high school for dogs"—complete with the same stereotypical cliques young humans have. And Marmaduke, the lumbering, extra-jumbo new kid, really wants to fit in there. But he's not in Kansas anymore. Literally.
His owner, Phil Winslow, got a job as marketing director of an organic pet food business—complete with a company car. He moves his wife (Debbie), two reluctant kids (Barbara and Brian), a wisecracking cat (Carlos) and, of course, that dog of dogs we've already seen so often in the funny papers (Marmaduke) from the Sunflower State to Orange County, Calif. All Phil wants are a new life for his family and a more prestigious paycheck.
All Marmaduke wants is to find new pals. So the humongous talking hound joins the "Mutts" clique at the dog park, and new friends Maizy, Raisin and Giuseppe quickly accept him. But the "Pedigrees"—including their bully leader, Bosco—ridicule the paperless pooches. That is, until Marmaduke stages a fight with Carlos to make himself look good. After all, any feline-defeating canine is worth his weight in kibble, right? Winning against Bosco in a surfing competition also tips the status scale in Marmaduke's favor.
Suddenly alpha dog Bosco is dethroned and the "Duke" is big man on campus. Bosco's fickle collie girlfriend, Jezebel, quickly shifts allegiance to the Great Dane as he lives large, with a now-inflated ego.
It doesn't end there, though. Because Bosco eventually exposes Marmaduke's ploy with Carlos, and our hairy hero is put back in his place.
Based very loosely on the long-running comic strip of the same name, Marmaduke offers lessons of courage, friendship, loyalty, honesty, accepting others and facing mistakes. The value of friendship, both human and canine, is especially highlighted. True friends appreciate, stick up for and protect one another. And they're willing to admit when they've made a selfish mistake. Marmaduke, for example, changes his behavior and attitude when he learns he's been wrong.
Likewise, Phil eventually realizes his workaholism won't help his family get ahead … and may actually be a detriment to his wife's and children's wellbeing. He learns how to stand up to his demanding boss and make time to be a better dad and husband. And even though he knows he'll lose his job over the matter, he decides to put his family first, helping to look for Marmaduke—who's lost in L.A.—instead of attending a big meeting at work. In the context of the film, that choice is both right and sacrificial. (It's designed to show us that Dad's changed his priorities for the better, not that he doesn't care about his career.)
By that point, bighearted Marmaduke has already more than returned the favor. He understands the fragile relationship Phil has with his kids. And so he tries—through actions, not words—to help his owner see their perspective and bring them all back together as a family.
Streetwise Maizy looks for Marmaduke when he runs away. Later, he helps save her life when she's in danger. Maizy also demonstrates wisdom and grace when it comes to prodding Marmaduke into recognizing some significant shortcomings in his character.
After Marmaduke's friends destroy the Winslows' living room, Deb assures Phil that their home is their family, not their house.
Girls and women wear shorts and bikinis that show cleavage. (Deb wears a shirt over her bikini.) Phil and Deb kiss a couple times in bed, either fully clothed or while she wears a modest nightgown.
Puppy love becomes literal when Marmaduke falls for Jezebel—and the song "Let's Get It On" plays during one of their dates. Male surfers are seen shirtless. Carlos dreams of feminine felines and talks about them in his sleep.
Pratfalls and other slapstick shenanigans are practically nonstop—mostly involving Marmaduke violently knocking someone over or out of bed.
On a more serious note, Bosco, Marmaduke and the mysterious Chupadogra become aggressive, with menacing growls and bared teeth that could be frightening for younger children. We also hear that Chupadogra supposedly ate his owner and sleeps on the bones of other victims.
Bosco threatens to tear Marmaduke to pieces, and Carlos says he'll scratch someone's eyes out. Carlos also burps feathers. (The family's pet bird has gone missing.) And he gets swung around by his tail during his staged fight with Marmaduke.
Crude or Profane Language
God's name is misused twice. Other language concerns worth noting in a film aimed at children include "heck," "suck" and the incomplete phrase "what the …" "Bee" stands in for a coarse epithet in the line "payback's a …" Name-calling includes "loser," "doofus," "spaz," "donkey boy," "knucklehead," "freak" and "wiener dog."
A reference to a "steaming pile" is made. Phil is said to be "licking butt" at work. David Hasselhoff's name is pronounced derisively in a way that sounds like a profanity.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Two parties, one that Marmaduke throws at the Winslows' house and one under an ocean pier, feature the dogs behaving as if they were at a college frat party, complete with out-of-control behavior and property destruction. Drain water substitutes for alcohol in this doggy domain, and Bosco is especially aggressive after drinking it. Slurping out of the toilet becomes a symbol for binge drinking as other partying dogs cheer on the slurper.
Phil slips his pets a sedative in a meatball before they fly via air cargo. This in itself isn't problematic, but the drug reference jokes afterward are. Other drug references involve the "Mushroom Head" dogs at the park who eat wild "magic" fungi and act stoned. Margarita salt is mentioned. Humans drinking alcohol are shown on a television program.
Other Negative Elements
Gross-out humor includes Marmaduke loudly, purposefully and repeatedly passing gas while on Phil and Debbie's bed—then commenting with perverse pride on what he's done. Dogs talk about peeing on things—and do it several times. A "juvenile delinquent" dog urinates into a man's cup, which he later drinks from. One pooch drags his backside across the living room carpet and talks about how good it feels. Carlos' coughed-up hairball is shown, up close and personal.
Barbara is upset about the family's move and behaves sullenly around her parents without consequence. Brian lies to his dad about going to soccer practice. (He's actually been going to a skate park.) Phil uses Marmaduke selfishly at times to further his career. Marmaduke repeatedly sneaks out at night to go partying. Marmaduke lies to Bosco.
In the context of the film, Phil's efforts to save Marmaduke after he falls through a sinkhole is positive. In the context of reality, however, Phil's willingness to risk his life to save his dog shows poor judgment—especially when a fireman tries to warn him to stay away from the accident scene.
As all films with talking critters do, Marmaduke features very human behavior anthropomorphically superimposed upon animals. This can be both funny and educational depending on the content, and here we encounter warm messages of accepting yourself and others, self-sacrifice, loyalty and contentment. Also emphasized are kindness, facing fears and doing the right thing.
That said, this Great Dane dalliance also dishes out a fair amount of crass and irresponsible material. It winks at teen intoxication and bullying violence. It gets down and dirty with poop jokes and urine in somebody's glass. Since when do children need to lap up stuff like that, even euphemistically?
Marmaduke might need to make a little more room in the doghouse.