LOS ANGELES - The cats and dogs of "Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore" have all kinds of super-spy gadgetry and training at their disposal: jet-packs, tricked-out collars, the works. But they come from a long and lovable tradition of live-action animal movies - ones that were simpler and sweeter, which seem to be in short supply these days, given the eye-popping sophistication of computer animation.
Here's a look at five that deserve two paws up:
"Babe" (1995): This is a movie about a talking pig - a talking pig, people! - that was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture and best supporting actor for James Cromwell. (It won one, for visual effects.) That's how good it is. Director and co-writer Chris Noonan's film about a pig who learns how to herd sheep is so sweet, so funny, so unexpectedly touching, it never hits a false note. As voiced by Christine Cavanaugh, Babe might just be the most earnest, most adorable creature ever. That he befriends sheepdogs, horses, ducks and humans alike is only part of his charm. A childlike sense of wonder and the attitude that anything is possible round out his allure.
"My Dog Skip" (2000): Just writing the name of the movie makes me want to tear up. Seriously, there is no way to get through this thing without bawling - I dare you to try. Several powerful forces are at work here: an insanely cute Frankie Muniz as our shy, 9-year-old hero; the idea of a dog being your only real friend when you're a lonely, insecure kid; and of course, Skip himself, a lovable, scruffy Jack Russell terrier. Sure, this coming-of-age tale yanks relentlessly at your heartstrings - and Skip's antics might seem a little too wacky for the truly, deeply cynical - but its own heart is in the right place.
"Lassie Come Home" (1943): Maybe it's because I had a collie as a little girl, but I can walk into this movie at any point and find tears streaming down my face within seconds. It's a classic, of course, featuring a young Roddy McDowell and Elizabeth Taylor (and it was remade pretty faithfully a few years ago with Peter O'Toole and Samantha Morton). No, "Lassie" is not realistic. The dog is possessed of such preternatural navigational skills, she can find her way from Scotland to Yorkshire on her own, despite the many obstacles and threats along the way. But when she arrives back home and young Joe Carraclough sees her again for the first time ... wow. Manipulative, yes, but effective.
"The Black Stallion" (1979): It's scary and thrilling, amusing and inspirational - which means it has all the ingredients for a perfect family film. And that Arabian horse creates such a striking figure, you can't help but be in awe of its majesty. The gorgeous cinematography from Caleb Deschanel certainly contributes to the mystical quality of the film, but the fundamental story is what's crucial: that of a bond between a boy and a horse, which is forged spiritually and without unnecessary dialogue. And Mickey Rooney is a hoot as the horse trainer who drives the stallion to greatness, a role that earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.
"Every Which Way But Loose" (1978): Goofy, but kinda irresistible in its self-awareness. You have to love Clint Eastwood toying with his tough-guy image by playing ... a tough guy whose best friend is an orangutan. Eastwood plays a trucker and a barroom brawler - an easygoing guy who nonetheless has a penchant for trouble. Clyde is the beer-sipping orangutan he wins on a bet who becomes his right-hand man.
There's some romance with Sondra Locke as the country singer who catches his eye, but the real love affair is between Eastwood and his furry, fun-loving pal.