I never saw Oliver and Company when I was a kid but I remember seeing the trailer for it whenever we watched a Disney film on VHS. Every time I saw it I wanted to watch it but it never happened. Probably because I’d get too distracted by whatever Disney film I was going to watch. It always looked really fun and, as someone who loved dogs, I was obviously into the idea of Oliver Twist being remade with animals. I mean if The Lion King has taught us anything it’s that taking a piece of great literature and retelling it with animals is a great strategy for storytelling. I mean who’d even heard of Hamlet before Disney introduced us to Simba, right? Plus, there is a whole host of Disney films that prove that dogs and/or cats having adventures together is an instant winner. I’m not a big fan of Dickens anyway so I couldn’t imagine how it could get any worse by involving household pets.
Today was the opening day of the Crufts dog show. I work with more than a few dog obsessives who will get quite into the show. So it’s probably going to be something I hear about a lot for the next few days. As much as I love dogs, Crufts always brings to mind the Christopher Guest mockumentary Best in Show. So, being a Thursday, I decided to rewatch the film about a fake dog show instead of watching the real thing. After all, watching dogs actually compete for the title of Best in Show would only have me wishing that I was still a dog owner. At least this way I have the comedy to distract myself. After all, sitting down to watch a Christopher Guest film is like sitting down with an old friend. Back in November, I watched his Netflix original Mascots and, despite feeling it could have been better, I bloody enjoyed it. It’s been 17 years since Best in Show was first released so would it still feel as fresh and funny?
I’m one of those people who prefers dogs to people. I’m getting to an age where people seem to be absolutely obsessed with babies. As a woman in her (now very) late 20s it’s sort of expected that I’m getting broody and am desperately waiting to have a tiny human being of my own to clean up after. I still have no real idea on the kid front and, as of right now, would much prefer a dog instead. For one thing they’re much cuter and are a lot less hassle to obtain. Babies are great, yes, and if anyone shows me pictures of their child doing something “adorable” I will nod and smile as much as they want me to. But I’ll secretly be wishing I was looking at a picture of a dog dressed as a Star Wars character. So I kind of understand the crazy relationships people have with their dogs. It’s also something Christopher Guest found fascinating enough to make a film about.
Although, it almost didn’t happen. When Guest pitched the idea to co-writer Eugene Levy, Levy was convinced the idea wouldn’t work. He didn’t think their was enough room for comedy in a dog show setting. Thankfully the pair came together to create a concept, gathered a talented cast of comic actors, and brought together a bunch of ex-competition winning dogs. And thank fuck they did. Now, as with any Christopher Guest film. the story itself isn’t really important: this is a film about the characters. During the film’s first act we are introduced to five dog owners and their prized pets. Each owner is making their way to the Mayflower Dog Show in Philadelphia and is hoping to win the illusive title of Best in Show.
There is the troubled married couple Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock) who are desperately trying to keep their Weimaraner happy but failing miserably. The couple from Florida (Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara) who’s money troubles are forcing them to sleep in the hotel’s storage room but who adore their Norwich Terrier. A keen Fisherman and wannabe ventriloquist (Christopher Guest) and his Bloodhound. The trophy wife and her trainer/secret girlfriend (Jennifer Coolidge and Jane Lynch) who are returning to the show as two-time champions. A camp gay couple (John Michael Higgins and Michael McKean) and their kind of ridiculous Shih Tzu. The films first half lets us see the each competitor in their homes before they make their way to the dog show and compete with the other dogs.
As you’d expect, a lot of the film is improvised and the cast are able to run wild with their characters. This is a talented bunch of people and the film is littered with Guest’s regular co-stars. Each of the competitors is an absurd creation but never at the expense of anyone. The film highlights the inherent weirdness in the world of showing dogs professionally but it is constantly tinged with a love and understanding that stops it from moving into meanness. In the middle of the showboating and pomp there is plenty of love between the owners and their dogs. It is a crazy and hyperbolic representation of dog owners but it is strangely sweet at the same time.
This film really helped cement Guest as the king of the improvised mockumentary style that has become his staple. The film is full of funny moments but, if you ask me, it doesn’t really pick up until the action moves into the arena. The opening act is great as we hear the backstories of each contenstant but it is Fred Willard’s role as an inept commentator that will stick with you. Seated alongside an industry professional (Jim Piddock), Willard’s Buck Laughlin speculates that a Sherlock Holmes costume would help the Bloodhound’s chances of winning the prize. Let loose in this manner, Willard is unstoppable. He is constantly funny and surprising and, despite Eugene Levy’s doubts, it is the dog show itself that lifts this film.
Best in Show may feel a bit old school now thanks to Christopher Guest’s increasing filmography. However, when it came out 17 years ago it was still a fresh and different approach to film making. It is still an incredibly funny film and a must-see for anyone who missed it/wasn’t born when it was made. It has everything: laughs, love, suspense, and a heartwarming ending. If anything deserved the winner’s rosette then it’s this.