Based on the book of the same name, The Art of Racing in the Rain is the latest in the unlikely trend of family dramas seen through the eyes of the family canine. Will this one score with audiences who aren’t necessarily dog lovers?
Published in 2008, New York Times bestseller The Art of Racing in the Rain was a hit with critics and readers for its blend of homespun wisdom and authentic racing insights informed by author Garth Stein’s own racing career. Told from the point of view of race car driver Denny Swift’s dog, Enzo, the novel sold well enough to justify Stein releasing a simplified version for young readers.
Nearing the end of his life, a golden retriever named Enzo (voiced by Kevin Costner, The Bodyguard) looks back on the events that led up to this point. Since he was a puppy, Enzo has been the pet of Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia, Creed II, TV’s This is Us) an up-and-coming driver with dreams of making it big on the racing circuit. Denny’s wife, Eve (Amanda Seyfried, Les Misérables) is incredibly supportive, looking after their daughter, Zoe, while Swift chases his dream. Enzo shares his master’s passion for racing, and dreams of being reincarnated as a human. When tragedy strikes the Swift family, a vicious battle for Zoe’s custody breaks out between Denny and Zoe’s parents. In the end, with a little push from Enzo, Denny will decide what really matters the most.
A STRAIGHTFORWARD TALE
A competently-made tear-jerker seen through the eyes of Man’s best friend, those who would deride The Art of Racing in the Rain for its uncomplicated execution are probably missing the point: in an age where far too many films fall victim to their own hype, it’s refreshing to see a film that actually accomplishes everything it sets out to do.
The film shares many similarities with A Dog’s Purpose (2017) in having typical family drama tropes interpreted by the said family’s canine. Where that film had Frozen’s Josh Gad as the voice of the dog, The Art of Racing in the Rain has Kevin Costner eschewing cute and cuddly for a significantly gruffer take that nevertheless manages to charm.
AS TOLD BY ENZO
Perhaps as a result of being portrayed by a number of actual dogs, Enzo has more of a presence than the digital cast of the recent Lion King remake, which makes it all the easier to fall in love with the faithful canine. Whether he’s showing jealousy of the Deny and Eve’s budding romance or bemoaning his lack of opposable thumbs, Enzo is a palpable presence throughout the proceedings that you can’t help but root for.
As Denny, Ventimiglia is his usual, generally dependable self, only falling on the bad side of his in-laws due to his profession. On the side of the angels is Seyfried, who provides Denny with unwavering support, even in times when she would honestly be entirely justified to complain. The role, however, is underwritten, seemingly existing only to provide Denny and Enzo with the emotional motivation to move the plot forward. Seyfried is good in the part, but probably deserved more.
The light of the Swift’s life is Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), a lovable little girl whose affection for stuffed animals is tolerated by Enzo, save for a zebra that may or may not be demonic. Despite being too young to fully grasp the legal maneuvering happening around her, Zoe is perceptive enough to know that she doesn’t want to live with her grandparents.
By this point, stiff, upper-class in-laws who disapprove of their offspring’s spouse’s passion is a trope well-worn, which makes it a good thing that the parents here are never entirely demonized. The father, in particular (Martin Donovan, Ant-Man), is the primary antagonist, and, despite his willingness to bend the truth to get what he wants, we understand why he’s doing what he’s doing. While his treatment of Denny does provide the bulk of the film’s conflict, the fact that it comes from a place of concern, rather than cruelty, elevates him somewhat from the status of out and out villain.
Funnily enough, despite the word “racing” in the title, there is precious little of it in the film. Director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) centers the narrative squarely on the family side of things and, given the emotional stakes here, that’s probably for the best. What little racing footage we do get, however, is well-shot, and when you reach the sequence where Denny takes Enzo for one last spin, you’d be forgiven for shedding a tear or two. From the great time that the dog looked to be having, one wonders why Denny had never thought to do it before.
THE BOTTOM LINE
One may not have expected to enjoy a film about a dog who wants to be reincarnated as a human to race cars with his master following a custody battle, but hey, being surprised is one of the reasons we go to the cinema. Unpretentious, undemanding, and clear of purpose to the end, The Art of Racing in the Rain has much in common with Enzo himself.
There’s a good dog.
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