Way down at the bottom of the cinematic marketplace, there persists a hardy, thriving market for direct-to-DVD productions. These succeed financially because they're generally presold to home video and foreign markets before production starts, meaning the quality of the finished product is an irrelevant concern. A perennial strain of this breed is the kids' movie exploiting cute animals; dogs corner the market, leaving but a little space for cats, elephants and horses to get their moment. Here's a rundown of the eight most "essential" such titles released thus far this year.
"Charlie: A Toy Story"
For those in the market for a Christian-friendly boy-and-dog movie, there's "Charlie: A Toy Story," a product of the faith-centered Engine 15 Media Group, whose website draws attention to "an impressive portfolio of 24 quality feature films" like "Rex The Talented Tabby," the story of a cat who enters a "local jumping contest that only dogs have ever won," incurring the wrath of "the neighborhood bully and his dog Brutus." "Charlie: A Toy Story" begins when little Caden's (Raymond Ochoa) dad buys the titular dog for him, which leads to the break-up of an already fragile marriage. A grim and unusual start for an animal movie (dogs are supposed to bring families together, not serve as stressors that break down the final fragile ties), but a year later dad invents a new toy that'll make the family rich and reunited if Caden and Charlie can keep his store safe from some neighborhood bullies. The Christian overtones include a friendly gas station attendant named Gabriel (!) who may be an angel. This clip is labeled a "trailer," though it's really just an airless excerpt.
"A Talking Cat?!?"
Already something of a cult movie, this distinctively-punctuated movie's devotees have started a Tumblr devoted to analyzing the movie from every angle possible. As outlined by Nathan Rabin earlier this year, this movie's incompetence places it in the heady company of bad movie champs like "The Room" and "Birdemic." The plot concerns, as promised, a talking feline — but it can only talk to each person once, and only in the gravelly voice of Eric Roberts, and only to say things like "You both talked to a cat, didn't you?" I'll let the staggering trailer fill you in, but note that follow-up "A Talking Pony?!?" is already in post-production.
"An Easter Bunny Puppy"
After "A Talking Cat?!?", this is the other talking animal movie directed this year by David DeCoteau and appears to be the loose follow-up to his 2012 effort "A Halloween Puppy" (aka "A Magic Puppy," whose plot is summarized on this excellent poster), which also has Eric Roberts. (The two have collaborated on six titles so far, including "Snow White: A Deadly Summer" and "Hansel & Gretel: Warriors of Witchcraft," though Roberts sits this one out in favor of a much higher-pitched voice actor.) As with "A Talking Cat?!?", there's an advertising bait-and-switch, since the animal on the cover is cuter than the one in the movie. Amazon reviewers complain about this and many other aspects of the film, including an Easter egg painting scene that apparently goes on from anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes. One anonymous reviewer also is annoyed that the movie shares with "A Talking Cat?!?" " the same house, the same set, the same sound effects, and the same footage of a river (yes, this is sadly relevant)."
"Wiener Dog Nationals"
Founded in 1961, the hot-dog-centric fast-food chain Wienerschnitzel has been sponsoring the Wiener Nationals since 2009 (a delightful photo gallery of such past events can be found here). As described on the chain's website, the competition is "a spirited and thrilling Dachshund race" for "wiener fanatics, coaches and their sausage-like athletes." The competition is also the backdrop for this title, in which single dad Jason London adopts Shelly, whose racing abilities may be sabotaged by the evil Ms. Merryweather (Morgan Fairchild, who had a small part in "Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2" as a dog show commentator and hence is no stranger to DTV-canine movies). According to a review from the FilmFather website ("movie reviews for dads"), "the amount of screen time dedicated to wiener dogs is shockingly minimal."
"My Lucky Elephant"
The hardest-working elephant in showbiz is the legendary Tai, but her talents are reserved for Hollywood productions like "Water For Elephants" or "Operation Dumbo Drop"; the comparatively even more modest "My Lucky Elephant" stars Samboon, about whom little is known. Shot in Thailand, the plot revolves around a plucky orphan and his elephant Lucky. Though there's a kidnapping subplot (as in "Larger Than Life," in which Matthew McConaughey tried to nab Bill Murray's elephant, but also as in almost every single children's movie involving an animal), the main focus is on elephant art, a real thing you can purchase from this website. (The paintings have titles like "Soft Bondage" and "Oh! So Lovely.") "No elephant has ever painted like this," one man says in a respectful voice while Samboon wields a nifty brush. The film's been endorsed by the Dove Foundation, though only for those ages 12 and up, a caveat owing largely to some violence ("Blood is seen on elephant's foot after it runs over some police cycles").
"Our Wild Hearts"
Ricky Schroder is best known as a child star on the '80s sitcom "Silver Spoons," in which he bonded with the father he never really knew (prior to the pilot, anyway). His Hallmark Hall of Fame production "Our Wild Hearts" has a similar premise, only now Schroder (who also directed) is the dad bonding with his real-life daughter Cammie, with the two growing closer over a shared love of mustang horses. (A decided change of animal pace from Schroder's last directorial effort "Hellhounds," in which a Greek warrior battles killer canines in Hades.) According to Schroder, his goal was "bringing attention to the plight of the wild mustangs in west." A breathless press release indicates he was successful, delivering not only the second-most watched film in the Hallmark Channel's history but "the #4 rated ad-supported cable movie of the day."
"Adventures Of Bailey: A Night In Cowtown"
This is the third installment in the "Adventures of Bailey" franchise, following "Adventures of Bailey: The Lost Puppy" and "Adventures of Bailey: Christmas Hero," all three which were directed by Steve Franke and co-written with his wife Liz. This time Bailey is living happily in Texas and has a crush on Trixie (voiced by Liz Franke herself), but has to intervene in the inevitable dognapping plot. Like "Charlie: A Toy Story," this was also co-produced by Engine 15, though I found no mention of any Christian elements; dogs in hats are presumed to be innocent enough, I guess. The trailer's below, but I recommend instead this clip of talking dogs watching a John Wayne movie, which has its own strange, soothing appeal.
"Abner, The Invisible Dog"
Let's end with something to look forward to, because while "Abner, The Invisible Dog" has yet to secure some kind of home video presence, it looks like a good time all round. The title somewhat undersells the film's appeal: Abner isn't just an invisible dog but an invisible talking dog. The movie is the work of the prolific Fred Olen Ray, who since 1971 has acquired 130 directorial credits to his name. Like many of the helmers on the list, he's not strictly family-oriented (his softcore credits include "13 Erotic Ghosts), and he's also been a pro wrestler (alias: "Fabulous Freddie Valentine"). "Abner" looks to be well-stocked with no-cost gags like invisible Abner biting a man in the buttocks and crotch-shots to comical dognappers.