** Some spoilers **

The First Mate pegged this as the must-see movie this Christmas season from the first time she saw the trailer in the theaters months ago. The John Grogan book Marley & Me has long been one of her favorites.  For me, as a dog person, I wanted to see the movie, but at the same time I knew that dog stories do not end happily — and I dreaded reliving the passing of our own dogs two years ago, especially Cory.

People who don’t have pets often express puzzlement at how deeply those who do grieve over their loss.  We always say that only dog people really understand, but Marley & Me might bridge that gap.  Like the book, it highlights just about every misadventure one can have with a dog (and a few we fortunately escaped), even to the point where one of the adults screams, “Get rid of that dog!”  They can frustrate and anger you, but they give such pure love and joy that they easily get forgiven, and that’s what gets them into your heart.  Grogan has a short monologue voiceover at the end that explains it, and if you’ve ever had to put down your best friend, you’ll listen through tears.  I can promise you plenty more laughs than tears, too.

Jennifer Aniston delivers her usual excellent performance as Jenny, but Owen Wilson becomes John Grogan.  Wilson is a fine comedic actor, but until now I’ve never seen him get to the heart of a character as well as he does here.  He’s funny and charming as he is in most of his films, but he fleshes out this character, his ambivalence to success, his resistance to accepting middle age, and especially his attachment to Marley.  The scene where he says goodbye to Marley reminds me of experiences of my own, in the best possible way.

The rest of the cast give good performances as well, especially Nathan Gamble as their oldest son at 10 years old.  When Wilson has to drive Marley to the vet for the last time, he knows what’s coming, even if his younger brother and sister don’t.  Kathleen Turner makes a funny cameo appearance, although she doesn’t look at all familiar and I could only recognize her by her voice. Eric Dane does well as a friend who succeeds at everything Grogan traded for a family life, although according to my wife, that’s one rare departure from the source material by the filmmakers.

I’d enthusiastically recommend Marley & Me to everyone this Christmas season.  For pet people, it will remind you of the joys and the tribulations of having these blessings in the family, even if the end comes far too soon.  For those without pets, it will go a long way towards explaining why we grieve their passing.

Update: A good question from the comments: “Is this too intense for children?”  The First Mate and I discussed it, and we’d keep younger children at home unless you’re ready to explain the life and death issues.  The Little Admiral is 6 and might be too young, but she was four when Cory and Angel had to be put down, and we bought a wonderful book to explain the process; I’d say she would understand it and could handle the ending.  There are also some relationship struggles and career issues that will go over the heads of preadolescents, but nothing objectionable.

Update II: The front-page pic is not Marley but Cory, who was my wife’s guide dog for several years.