Dogs can do a lot of things better than we can. Most can see better. Hear better. Smell way better.
But we’ve still got the edge in driving automobiles, and that must steam a pooch named Enzo something fierce.
Enzo (the dog) was named after Enzo Ferarri (the founder of the legendary Italian sports car company). His owner, Denny Swift, races cars whever he can—and when he’s not racing, he’s teaching other folks how to race. Enzo follows Denny to the track whenever he can, watching his master and his car curl around the raceway like a sprinting gazelle. Enzo’s paws aren’t quite up to grasping a steering wheel (curse those opposable thumbs!), but he loves the racing so much he might as well bleed motor oil. The only thing the pooch digs more than racing is¬, well, Denny.
But as any racing enthusiast knows—even if he’s just a Formula 1-loving Fido—the track of life comes with a few curves.
Denny meets Eve outside a grocery store, and Enzo knows instantly the woman’s gonna be a distraction. No more nights of Denny and Enzo sharing snacks in front of the TV: Now, suddenly, he’s eating with her at the table! They’re going on walks together! And while Denny and Eve may share a few commonalities—their inefficient bipedal walks, for instance—she certainly doesn’t understand Denny’s racing. Not like Enzo.
But no matter. The two humans get married and, before too long, another bit of humanity enters Enzo’s life. Zoe’s a tiny little thing. Utterly useless, really, with her wriggling and crying and complete inability to fetch a simple tennis ball. Still, Enzo can’t help but like the little squealer.
In fact, the dog eventually takes a shine to almost everyone in Denny’s orbit. Denny, after all, is the smartest, strongest, bestest human in the whole wide world. Anyone who Denny loves must be worth loving.
So when Enzo detects a strange scent on Eve—a scent of “decay, like rotting wood”—the dog wishes like crazy he could speak. He wants, desperately, to warn Eve. Warn Denny.
If life is a racetrack, this smell would represent a terrible road hazard that no one will see until it’s just too late. And if Denny’s not careful, they’ll crash.
“I know no better man than Denny,” narrator Enzo tells us. And because we see the guy mainly through Enzo’s eyes, Denny seems like a great guy indeed.
Denny is defined by his love—for his wife, his child, his dog, his sport. Denny loves Eve and tenderly cares for her when she gets sick. He adores his daughter. And when he’s called on, essentially, to be a single dad, Denny works his way through all the pitfalls of that new (and he hopes temporary) responsibility. Even when Denny suffers deeply, he always pushes through—giving Zoe the strength, stability and joy that she needs. He forgives a couple of people who’ve deeply wronged him, too, for the sake of his family.
And though Denny loves racing cars—and, Eve says, was really made to do just that—he shows a willingness to sacrifice that side of himself if it means caring better for his wife and daughter. It’s Eve, in fact, who often has to push him to race and pursue his goals.
But really, it’s Denny’s relationship with Enzo that defines this movie. And Enzo returns that love tenfold.
Through Enzo’s very human narration, we learn that Enzo’s in no way just a “dumb dog.” When Eve’s in the hospital and Denny’s struggling to push on, Enzo takes his leash-in-mouth and practically presses it in Denny’s hand—a not-so-gentle hint to take a run. Their runs together prove to be a foundation of Denny’s continued mental health. And when an exhausted Denny—overwhelmed with financial, legal and relational difficulties—lies on a couch with Zoe and seems close to despair, Enzo hands him a TV remote. That might not look like much, but Denny sometimes needs that distraction—particularly watching old car races on the screen. This rerun was especially timely: A replay of a famous contest in which the winner took the checkered flag with just two gears intact. It’s not hard for Denny to see the parallels in his own life.
Indeed, throughout the film, both Enzo and the sport of racing offer philosophical bon mots on how to live well and earnestly: “No race is won in the first corner, but many have been lost there,” goes one. “There is no dishonor in losing the race,” begins another; “There is only dishonor in not racing because you are afraid to lose.”
The Art of Racing in the Rain is a surprisingly spiritual film—albeit one that leans toward Eastern mysticism more than Christian theology. Still, it’s quite insistent that the soul goes on after death. In that way, you could say that this dog film is a bit … dogmatic?
Enzo’s own dogma includes a belief in reincarnation. He watches a documentary on Mongolia and learns that people in that country revere their dogs (burying them on top of high hills so no one will walk on their graves, for instance), in part because they believe that some dogs come back as humans in their next lives. Enzo figures he’s just about there: He might not be able to speak or walk on two feet yet, but his soul is close to human, and one more dog life ought to push him over the top. And at the end, the movie itself seems to tip its hand and tell us that Enzo’s probably right. (And Denny believes so, too.)
When Enzo talks about a fatal race crash, he says that the person who died wasn’t killed by a random piece of debris, as doctors believe. Rather, “his body had served its purpose. His soul had done what it came to do, learned what it came to learn, and then he was free to leave.”
Eve, while sick, confides to Enzo that she’s not afraid of death anymore. “I know it’s not the end,” she says. “But you know that, don’t you?” And when Eve does pass on, Enzo tells us that he saw her soul actually leave her body.
If the movie has an antagonist, it’s a zebra—first in the form of one of Zoe’s stuffed animals. Enzo takes to calling it a “demon” and is determined to protect his family from its diabolical influence. (In the original book by Garth Stein, Enzo later realizes that the zebra/demon isn’t something “outside of us,” but rather our own fears and weaknesses and self-destructive natures. “The demon is us!” he declares in the novel.)
We hear some fleeting references to heaven and hell. Enzo (and others) express a lot of faith that they’re doing what the universe wants them to do. Enzo, for instance, is positive he was meant to be Denny’s dog.
Denny and Eve kiss often, and we see them in bed together before the two get married. (They’re snuggling and wrestling a bit; Denny’s shirtless and Eve’s dressed in her PJ’s, and it’s clear that she spent the night.) Enzo admits he can see why Denny would be attracted to her and her “plump buttocks” (as the camera zooms in on her jeans-covered derrierre).
We see Eve wrapped only in a towel after the two get married. She opens up her towel to a mirror she’s staring at (we don’t see anything), admiring her now-barely-pregnant body. (We see a used pregnancy test on the counter.) After Eve gets sick, we see her bare shoulders from the back.
Racing automobiles is a dangerous profession, and we hear about car crashes, both in the distant and more recent past. Eve’s parents, especially her father, sometimes talk about how dangerous the sport is, and Eve admits to Denny once that she can barely watch when he’s racing in the rain.
Eve collapses in the forest. Someone falls and breaks a rib. We later hear that he almost broke his wrist, too. His assailant is accused of fourth-degree assault. Enzo—who’s been left at home without food for a couple of days—hallucinates that Zoe’s stuffed zebra springs to life. The plush toy stabs another stuffed animal, then opens his own stuffing-filled chest cavity up and starts pulling the fluff out of himself. Later, when the family returns, Zoe’s room is littered with dismembered toys and white stuffing.
[Spoiler warning] Enzo is hit by a car. And while he survives, he’s never quite the same.
Two uses of the word “h—,” and about seven misuses of God’s name. Jesus’ name is abused once.
Eve and Denny drink beers with a couple of Denny’s friends. Eve’s father, Maxwell, makes and consumes a couple of martinis.
Enzo says that humans have always been “unusually interested in my bathroom habits,” and we see plenty of those habits here. As a puppy, he wets on Denny’s floor. As an old dog, he lies in a pool of his own urine because he can’t get up. And then, when he’s left alone for days—trapped in Eve’s and Denny’s home with no place to (literally) go—he relieves himself on the back-door mat.
But he does unleash a bit of angry poo at Eve’s parents’ house. Enzo encourages Maxwell (who does not get along with Denny) to feed him part of a pepper—a veggie Enzo knows full well is terrible for his tummy. His bowels soon release all over the nice, white rug that Maxwell and wife, Trish, just had shampooed. (We see the resulting ooky mess.)
Eve gets really, really sick one evening when Denny’s away: We hear her vomit several times in the kitchen sink (much to the alarm of both Enzo and 7-year-old Zoe). Enzo discusses a tapeworm he once had. Eve’s father can be a real jerk.
The Art of Racing in the Rain, based on the bestselling book by Garth Stein, has a lot going for it: A strong cast, positive messages, a sweet story and a PG rating—a rare thing indeed these days. It almost seems like it was made for Plugged In to say, “Hey, what a great family movie. Go watch.”
This Disney movie (released under the auspices of its newly acquired adjunct, 21st Century Fox) translates much of the book’s original humor, beauty and sometime profundity. But it also translates its sense of spirituality, too—one that steers afoul of orthodox Christianity. Things get real murky real fast. For Christian parents trying to help teach their kids the nuances of their own faith, the introduction of this very different, and unfettered, belief system might make Racing in the Rain a scratch at the starting line.
But for families willing to take on the movie’s counter-Christian spirituality—to address it openly and use it as a springboard to talk about what other people around the world believe—this pic holds some promise.
The Art of Racing in the Rain refers to Denny’s ability to, you guessed it, race in the rain. That’s not easy to do, on the track or off it. Sometimes we imagine that our lives will be perpetually sunny—that God will protect us from the world’s worst storms. But as most of us know, that isn’t the case. Most of our lives will suffer their share of downpours. And perhaps we don’t prepare our children as well as we should for those.
Enzo tells us that, in the worst of conditions, the below-average drivers crash. The average drivers quit. But great drivers? Drivers like Denny? They push through and push on. It takes patience and courage and even grace to persevere. And that—setting aside the movie’s other problems—isn’t a bad life lesson.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.