The dog drama other dog dramas want to be, The Art of Racing in the Rain sidesteps potential sappiness with honest, emotional storytelling, plus characters easy to care about and difficult to leave.
Credit goes foremost to novelist Garth Stein for writing such a strong source story, but also to Mark Bomback (War for the Planet of the Apes) for sharply adapting a book told by a canine — no easy feat — to the screen. That pup is Enzo, who eloquently and entertainingly relates the eventful life shared with his gifted racecar-driving owner Denny (Milo Ventimiglia, NBC’s “This Is Us”).
In voicing our hero, Kevin Costner and his gruff, no-nonsense narration would seemingly grow tiresome quickly, but his timbre only enhances the story and the deeply felt ups and downs of its human players. Costner’s vocal work also pairs nicely with the comically judgmental scowl donned by the golden retriever playing Enzo, furthering his effects as a loving skeptic.
The delightful mix of his loyalty to Denny, grudgingly making room in their formerly idyllic bachelor existence for his master’s mate Eve (Amanda Seyfried) — and then their daughter Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) — and generally figuring out his place as a dog in a human world yields plentiful humor and heart when filtered through Enzo’s kind soul.
The auto racing scenes and the sport’s life-applicable philosophies likewise weave in well, while the third-act drama with Eve’s oppressive parents (Kathy Baker and Martin Donovan) that was essentially borrowed for the recently concluded second season of HBO’s “Big Little Lies” works even better here.
Behind the wheel, er, camera, director Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn; Goodbye Christopher Robin) brings his usual safe yet professional style to keep the visuals clean and the pace active, and, in one delightfully unexpected sequence, proves adept at balancing live-action with animation.
Perhaps The Art of Racing in the Rain’s greatest asset, however, is its restraint from employing manipulative animal movie clichés. Instead, it wisely hints at those moments without dragging viewers through hell — and deserves a case of Puppy Snaps as a reward for being such a good boy.