Growing up, I was so attached to Lassie that I wanted her to come live with me. I had an extremely hard time understanding why that wasn’t possible. I truly loved Lassie so much. We were one. Every trial and tribulation she went through, I went through. Every evil-doer she caught, I caught. Every tender scene, I’d bawl waterfalls.

Okay, I was only seven, but as an adult looking back, I now know the reason I felt so emotionally connected to Lassie was because she represented the love I experienced and the adventures I went through with Ebony, my real-life canine best friend. Whether it was building snow forts, bicycling through a wheat field, or digging a hole to China, Ebony was always by my side with a tail that never stopped wagging.

Well, Lassie’s getting some new competition from the title character of John Grogan’s acclaimed novel Marley & Me. Grogan’s Marley reminds me so much of my beloved Ebony—an ordinary, free-spirited, fun-loving dog who would roll over if I said “Sit” and shake a paw if I said “Heel”—that I can’t help loving him.

An instant bestseller, Marley & Me chronicles the life of Grogan and his wife, Jenny, with their neurotic 97-pound Labrador Retriever as the dog crashes through screen doors, steals women’s undergarments, chews up couches, and aids neighbours in distress.
“On one level,” says Grogan, “my book is about a couple with a dog, but on another level, it really explores a couple trying to figure out what’s important in life and what really matters on our journey. This big crazy dog really led us to realize that the real goal is happiness and you find that at home and you find that with your family.”

It didn’t take long for Hollywood studios to get wind of the popular book and want to adapt it into a film. “We were on vacation,” Jenny recalls, “and John’s phone didn’t stop ringing with various studios all trying to cut a movie deal for the book.” The couple finally decided to give Fox 2000 the rights to make the film version.

Directed by David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada & HBO’s Sex & the City), Marley & Me boasts a star-studded cast with Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston as John and Jenny Grogan, Eric Dane as John’s best friend, Sebastian Tunney, Alan Arkin as John’s boss Arnie Klein, and Kathleen Turner as the stern dog-trainer, Ms. Kornblatt.

The film follows the Grogans from their marriage in 1989 through to the fall of 2004. You witness their struggle of balancing marriage, career, and family, but when they visit an animal rescue to adopt a dog, the heart of the story really begins. After falling in love with the one dog branded as a “clearance dog,” they take him home and name him Marley.

In between chewing up the Grogans’ garage, failing obedience school, and eating Jenny’s gold necklace, Marley provides comfort for the couple. He’s there with his unconditional support not only when Jenny miscarries her first child but also when their three children are born and the chaos of a growing family ensues.

The story has a broad appeal, according to Aniston. “You think it’s a kids’ movie or a dog movie but it’s a lot more than that. I made that assumption until I had my heart ripped out. It’s marriage. It’s children. It’s career. It’s ego. It’s success versus failure. All of these things that I think universally affect people at some point in a relationship.”

For Frankel, working with comedic talent like Wilson and Aniston was “the luck of the draw.” “You put two brilliant movie stars together and they spark in a thrilling way,” he says.

The two stars enjoyed working together on Marley & Me. “Owen is just great,” says Aniston. “He’s so good at his job, he’s so professional, he’s such a generous actor. We have so much fun playing off each other and I think this is a really good role for him, too. He has some moments that are just really special.” Wilson also had nothing but praise for his co-star. “All her instincts on how to play the character just seem like exactly the way [it was] when I read the script. The way I imagined it is the stuff that she does. And then, [she does] stuff that is better than you imagined.”

Both Wilson and Aniston are avid dog lovers and brought their own dogs, Garcia and Norman, on set every day to join in on the fun. Aniston’s dog, Norman, even made his first cameo during a beach scene in the film.

The real canine stars, though, are the 22 dogs that portray Marley from puppy to adulthood. “You know, they always say, ‘whatever you do, don’t work with babies and animals,’” laughs Aniston. “We’ve got babies. We’ve got puppies. We’ve got grown-up dogs. We’ve got old dogs…. It’s been a ball and nothing but fun.”

In total, there were eight trainers working with the eleven puppies, five young adult dogs, and three seniors who play Marley. Trainer Ray Beall explains that, unlike many dog movies, Marley & Me shows dogs behaving like normal dogs.

“In the movie, dogs get to be dogs,” he says. “They don’t have to be animals acting as humans.” Fellow trainer Mark Forbes adds: “Preparing for this movie was almost anti-training. The dogs got to not only just be a dog, but the most unruly, untrainable, out-of-control dog there ever was.”

Once shooting was wrapped, of course, there were eleven puppies who needed homes. “We had a list as long as your arm of people who wanted to adopt them,” says Forbes. Those who wanted a Marley puppy had to pass a home check. Puppies went home with several Fox executives and with the Grogans, and even Jennifer Aniston added a new Marley puppy to her family.
Marley & Me is due out in theatres this winter. Or wait until you can rent it and watch it at home snuggled up with your own Marley.