Strays, with its raggedy bunch of straggly, delinquent dogs, is significantly more profane and salacious than your typical live-action animal movie. While the abandoned pets of Homeward Bound go on an adventure to find their beloved owners, the furry fiends of Strays are determined to find one of their troupe’s negligent owner and “bite his dick off.” If you’re looking for a fabulously dark comedy of the type you might get if you asked Hunter S. Thompson to write a canine version of the ‘80s buddy movie Stand By Me, then you’re barking up the right tree with Strays.
Director Josh Greenbaum does a stellar job of treading the narrow tightrope between nostalgic buddy movie and digitally-enhanced dogs’ own adventure. Scruffy terrier Reggie (voiced by Will Ferrell) is the unlikely hero of the story. His owner Doug (Will Forte) doesn’t have the patience or stamina to look after Reggie, leading him to regularly try to lose the dog in the wilds of suburbia. Reggie—convinced it’s all a game and Doug is his family—always manages to find his way back, until Doug succeeds in abandoning him in the grubby, noisy city. Reggie finds some unlikely allies in fellow strays Bug (Jamie Foxx), Maggie (Isla Fisher), Hunter (Randall Park) and Cathy (Tinashe Kajese). When they convince Reggie that Doug should pay for abusing his trust this adventure really gets rolling, entailing an accidental magic mushroom trip, run-ins with the law, and getting carried away by a predatory hawk.
New York-born Greenbaum has a way with nostalgic, absurd humor that revels in showcasing Hollywood’s finest actors in kitschy comedic adventures. His quirky, unexpectedly lovely 2021 film Barb & Star Go To Vista del Mar told the tale of small-town Midwesterners who bravely venture outside of their predictable, suburban routines to discover the world. The world can wait, however, since Barb and Star discover a singing, dancing Jamie Dorman sharing their hotel and, obviously, fate has declared that there must be romance. While Greenbaum does spoofy silliness with aplomb, he’s also an award-winning documentary director. A decade ago, Netflix acquired his feature The Short Game as its first exclusive documentary in 2013. He went on to direct two documentaries for Hulu in 2017, Becoming Bond (telling the story of Australian actor George Lazenby) and Too Funny to Fail (an insider’s view of The Dana Carvey Show, which aired briefly on ABC in 1996).
Strays—like Barb & Star Go To Vista del Mar—liberally draws upon nostalgia, kitsch and wink-wink, nudge-nudge humor that’s impossible to resist. It’s a bit juvenile, it’s kinda gross, and yet there’s just enough relatable, sentimental humanity to the characters and their conundrums that you’re invested in the story within minutes.
For audiences old enough to remember The Goonies (1985) or Stand By Me (1986), the tale of a gang of misfit kids setting out on an adventure and forging hard-and-fast friendships is a blueprint for Strays. Like Gordie (Wil Wheaton) and Chris (River Phoenix) in Stand By Me, Reggie and Bug discover that however different they are in terms of life experiences—or breed—they are both outsiders, accustomed to rejection and abandonment, and that is a powerful bond to have in common for both humans and dogs.
Greenbaum enthusiastically embraces my references.
“Literally, in my pitch video I referenced Stand By Me and The Goonies. I also referenced a smaller movie, Breaking Away, a beautiful film starring Dennis Quaid who has a very fun cameo in Strays. They were big inspirations. In a way, I was always looking to make one of those films and it stumbled into my lap in the form of a dog movie.”
Importantly, adds Greenbaum, “None of my first references in making this film were dog movies. We referenced Homeward Bound and we have some fun jokes that subvert the dog-movie genre with winks and nods, but I’ve always wanted to tell a story like those films you’re referencing. I was able to scratch that itch through a very fun, loud, outrageous R-rated dog movie.”
For all the comedic absurdity, Strays has got a lot of heart and the dogs are disarmingly relatable, transcending the superficial barriers to identifying with on-screen humans because of our differences in gender, culture, ethnicity and age.
“That was my hope,” affirms Greenbaum. “When I was making the film, I was concerned that I didn’t want you to come away thinking it’s only a commentary on dog-human relationships—which it is! But I felt like if I did my job right, you would take away that there’s metaphors here that are relevant for all people, in that you identify with the human characteristics of the dogs.”
He clarifies, “It’s less about dog-owner relationships, and more so about what it’s like to be in an unhealthy, toxic relationship like the predicament Reggie’s in, where he is giving everything but getting nothing in return from this terrible owner. Ultimately, what Strays hits on is how do you re-find your sense of self-worth? So, even though it’s a very fun movie, there’s a poignant, emotional message, and I hope people come away with that.”
Greenbaum ultimately came away from filming Strays with something more tangible than an emotional experience.
“I adopted one of the dogs from the film, actually,” he admits. “I have a little puppy Reggie running around—Will Ferrell lives in my house with me.”
Greenbaum chuckles, “My twin daughters insisted that his name stay Reggie even though he didn’t really have a name. Most of the puppies are owned by their trainers, but I found out this dog would not have a home, so I called my wife and asked if I could surprise our daughters with a second dog and, of course, my wife said, ‘You can’t not do that!’ It was so sweet, we brought Reggie home and the girls lost their minds. I have this wonderful memento now from the film.”
He accedes the film had two lives, one before the cast was confirmed and the film that was fueled by Ferrell, Fox, Forte and Fisher.
“I was very involved with who we went with,” Greenbaum tells me. “I made a list and the filmmaking gods shined down on me and I got my dream cast. We went out and started filming the movie with the dogs prior to having the voices locked in, so there were a few weeks before we locked in Will and Jamie. I made the movie twice, in a way, because we shot the whole movie on set with the dogs and then we brought the actors in together, and you can feel that in the chemistry.”
For Greenbaum, it was a no-brainer to ensure the cast weren’t recording in isolation so that they could react and improvise in tandem.
“I come from live-action films where that’s the norm. I wanted to have these heavy-hitting comedians being able to hit the ball back and forth and improv, so we had sessions with Randall, Isla, Will and Jamie all there at once.”
As hilarious, smutty and compelling as the voice actors are, it is a movie that doesn’t try to blind the audiences with digital brilliance. The true stars are the real dogs and their trainers.
“When I signed on to this film I planted my flag and said, ‘The way I want to do this is with as much real dog performance and behavior as possible’,” says Greenbaum. “As great as CG effects have become, it was important to me that the dogs feel really real. Kids might enjoy anthropomorphized dogs, but for adults, I wanted it to feel grounded and real for that audience. So, 95 percent of the movie is real dogs and 5 percent is full CG. It blew my mind what trainers were able to achieve as far as the dogs’ performances.”