Photo: Paramount

Year of the Dog is the newest feature film to analyze the always intriguing relationship between man and canine, but to the chagrin of animal-lovers and other viewers, first-time director Mike White forgets that very likeable premise early on.

What starts as a subtle comedy transforms into a preachy melodrama, when, to be blunt, the cutest canine of the bunch is accidentally poisoned.

For Peggy (Molly Shannon), Pencil, the adorable beagle in question, provides an anchor to a world that otherwise would pass by her without so much as a hello. He cuddles her at night, eats alongside her and seems to understand Peggy in a way far more sophisticated than the humans in her life.

Best friend Layla (Regina King) must nag her man into an engagement. Her vapid boss (Josh Pais) cares only about numbers and his year-end bonus. Even her brother Pier (Thomas McCarthy) and his wife (Laura Dern) are far too busy meticulously raising their children to offer much assistance.

During the first 10 minutes of the film, we see these quirky, preoccupied characters bouncing off Peggy, who sits calmly, legs crossed, behind her own impenetrable force field of homeliness. Scenes are well shot, framed beautifully and set to a soundtrack that daintily propels movement from the cold outside world to the intimate paradise Peggy enjoys beside Pencil.

Problem is, Pencil dies, and with him go the pacing, color, timing and tightness that could've - if continued throughout - made this film a memorable winner.

Photo: Paramount

Year of the Dog is the newest feature film to analyze the always intriguing relationship between man and canine, but to the chagrin of animal-lovers and other viewers, first-time director Mike White forgets that very likeable premise early on.

What starts as a subtle comedy transforms into a preachy melodrama, when, to be blunt, the cutest canine of the bunch is accidentally poisoned.

For Peggy (Molly Shannon), Pencil, the adorable beagle in question, provides an anchor to a world that otherwise would pass by her without so much as a hello. He cuddles her at night, eats alongside her and seems to understand Peggy in a way far more sophisticated than the humans in her life.

Best friend Layla (Regina King) must nag her man into an engagement. Her vapid boss (Josh Pais) cares only about numbers and his year-end bonus. Even her brother Pier (Thomas McCarthy) and his wife (Laura Dern) are far too busy meticulously raising their children to offer much assistance.

During the first 10 minutes of the film, we see these quirky, preoccupied characters bouncing off Peggy, who sits calmly, legs crossed, behind her own impenetrable force field of homeliness. Scenes are well shot, framed beautifully and set to a soundtrack that daintily propels movement from the cold outside world to the intimate paradise Peggy enjoys beside Pencil.

Problem is, Pencil dies, and with him go the pacing, color, timing and tightness that could’ve - if continued throughout - made this film a memorable winner.

The second part of the film follows a similar format to the opening minutes - people flitting into and out of Peggy’s life - but few of her subsequent actions are anchored to her development as a lonely woman looking for love wherever she can find it.

The death of her companion explains why she begins to court an animal-rights activist (Peter Sarsgaard) and devote more work time to the pursuit of similar interests, such as a rescue farm for abandoned animals.

No one, unfortunately, would believe that Pencil’s untimely end would inspire her eventual transformation into a preachy, militant vegan who engages in fraud, theft and assault.

It’s a shame.

When she’s at her best - not playing a quirky bit part or sniffing her armpits - Shannon’s friendly aunt-ish looks and her ability to calm a scene simply by folding her hands in her lap are quite amazing.

She embodies the plain, middle-aged homebody with an expert grace. It’s clear from the film’s opening minutes that there’s no one more skilled than Shannon at making the ordinary something splendid.

But then the screenplay forces Peggy between the sad netherworlds of depression and self-posed social mortification - that dark place where a sliver of self-righteous pleasure can be found in purposefully rejecting all that one truly desires.

She’s lost, certainly. But White, who also wrote the screenplay, gives her only one recourse: To completely abandon any semblance of the normal routine that once had proved so comforting earlier in the film.

Shannon does her best, but even she can’t keep up with the convoluted scenes that at the end will polarize audiences along political lines rather than affinity for dogs.

Ultimately, the film is meant to show a woman slowly breaking down and eventually finding herself.

Neither Shannon nor this Leftist vehicle ever recover.

Grade: C+ Web: www.yearofthedogmovie.com