Film Review: Roadside Romeo

Stray dogs sing, dance, find love and confront a gangster mongrel on the streets of Mumbai. India's first major computer-animated feature, a co-production of Disney and Bollywood giant Yash Raj Films, makes for an inauspicious debut.

The Walt Disney Company, for all its quirks and excesses, has a nonpareil record of risk-taking, and of stretching technical boundaries and creating animated firsts. This co-production with Bollywood giant Yash Raj Films marks the first major computer-animated feature made in India, and a nod to the burgeoning crossover market for the cool, crazy, colorful movie musicals long a staple of the subcontinent. Unfortunately, like its hero, Roadside Romeo is a dog.

Initially a canine-out-of-comfort-zone story about a rich family's pet, Romeo (voice of Bollywood superstar Saif Ali Khan, seen stateside in 2007's Ta Ra Rum Pum and this year's trio Race, Tashan, and Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic), the film dispenses with that conceit in the first five minutes and becomes instead a romance and a slapstick comedy, each form trying to elbow out the other. Living in the alleys of Mumbai after his owners move to London and their servant doesn’t want him, the formerly pampered and catered-to Romeo somehow develops both instant street smarts and hair-salon techniques that endear him to a quartet of goodhearted bad-dog wannabes: Guru (Vrajesh Hirjee), Hero English (Kiku Sharda), Interval (Suresh N Menon), and, most interestingly, Mini (Tannaz Irani), a riot girrll with leather gloves who happens to be a cat, though she's loath to admit it.

Romeo and his new friends open a dog-grooming business, where mutts can get coiffed for the cost of two bones—yes, those standard, leg-bone-type tropes that are to old-fashioned cartoon dogs what bowling-ball bombs with fuses are to old-fashioned cartoon spies and bank bags with dollar signs are to old-fashioned cartoon bank robbers. Caught up in the excitement, the friends forget to tell Romeo about Charlie Anna (Javed Jaffrey), a cheerfully malicious bulldog who's the local don. When Charlie's lieutenant, Chhainu (Sanjai Mishra), comes by to collect protection money and Romeo throws him out, it's only a matter of time before Charlie sics his silent ninja-dog trio—Silk Sunitha, Nylon Nandini and Polyester Padmini, called collectively the Angels (as in "Charlie's")—on them.

Romeo fools Charlie and saves his friends' hides for the moment, and the dogs play cat-and-mouse for most of the film. When Romeo falls for nightclub singer Laila (major Bollywood actress Kareena Kapoor, Ali Khan's significant other and his co-star in Tashan), whom Charlie has his eye on, big trouble ensues.

Made for a reported $7 million, a pittance in terms of CGI features, the film ironically suffers less from technical limitations than from basic script and character flaws. The animation has a full, deeply dimensional look, making Romeo and his cohorts look rather like plush dolls. Unfortunately, they're just about as mobile and articulated, giving the musical numbers' choreography a slightly stiff look that isn't helped by its often not matching the beat. The bling-is-king opening song is catchy, but the remainder of the soundtrack so-so.

While that might have been absorbing visually had the story been more engrossing, there's little that’s original or compelling here, and the main characters are plain unlikeable: Romeo is a charmless "charmer" much taken with himself, and Laila a smug, game-playing bitch. TV's "Top Cat" had more sophisticated comedy and group dynamics, and "Scooby-Doo" better farce and slapstick