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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Hollywood is always looking for fresh faces -- even if they belong to dogs -- and the tiny four-legged star of "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" has a rags-to-riches story to match any new arrival on silver screens.
Popularized by the likes of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, Chihuahuas are the most popular pooches in Los Angeles. But the makers of family film "Beverly Hills Chihuahua," which opens on Friday, wanted some undiscovered talent for their whimsical tale of romance and adventure -- doggy style.
Papi, the part Chihuahua, part mutt male lead of the movie, was rescued from a Los Angeles animal shelter after trainers held months of fruitless auditions with breeders and veteran movie furry friends.
Head animal trainer Mike Alexander told Reuters it was Papi's big ears and great expression that got the dog noticed.
"We saw his picture on the Internet and when we got to meet him at the shelter, he had a great bouncy personality that went with it," said Alexander, of Birds & Animals Unlimited.
As a complete ingenue, Papi was given six months of training for his role as the street-wise pet of a gardener who falls head over heels for a pampered, diamond-clad Beverly Hills pooch named Chloe.
When Chloe gets lost in Mexico, Papi heads south of the border to rescue his love in what the filmmakers say is ultimately a story about finding yourself.
"Chihuahuas are a great breed but they take a little more finesse (to train). A lot of them have big attitudes but they are also very small dogs, so you don't want to intimidate them," Alexander said.
The movie has a cast of more than 200 dogs, including Dobermans, Poodles, German Shepherds, Pugs, a Labrador and a Dachshund. Some are seasoned Hollywood canines and many others were found in shelters in Los Angeles and Mexico.
But Papi is the unrivaled star.
"He's a little bigger than most Chihuahuas. When he runs, he hops. I don't think I've seen a Chihuahua hop like a bunny before. He's a romantic dog, but he's got a little bit of street in him," said actor George Lopez, who voices Papi and has three Chihuahuas of his own.
Alexander, who headed a team of more than 60 animal trainers, said the movie was one of the most challenging he has ever worked on.
"There are a lot of dogs and it is a very bold script. Every time I would turn the page, I would think 'this has got to be hardest gag in this movie'. And then the next page...and on and on all the way to the end," he said.
The movie is expected to spark a Chihuahua buying spree from audiences despite carrying an on-screen warning by Walt Disney Pictures that owning a dog is a serious responsibility.
The Humane Society has warned lovers of the pint-size pooches not to get their Chihuahuas from a pet store or through the Internet, saying they are one of the most popular breeds in puppy mills which raise dozens of the dogs in cramped cages.
Papi, whose off screen name is Rusco, has now found a permanent home with Alexander at his ranch outside Los Angeles where he is no doubt awaiting his first sack of fan mail.