Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Shaggy Dog / ** (PG)

Dave Douglas: Tim Allen
Rebecca Douglas: Kristin Davis
Carly Douglas: Zena Grey
Josh Douglas: Spencer Breslin
Dr. Kozaks: Robert Downey, Jr.
District Attorney Hollister: Danny Glover
Judge Whittaker: Jane Curtin
Lance Strictland: Philip Baker Hall

Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Brian Robbins. Written by Cormac Wibberley, Marianne Wibberley, Geoff Rodkey, Jack Amiel and Michael Begler. Running time: 98 min. Rated PG (for some mild rude humor).

Disney’s latest remake of one of their own classic titles “The Shaggy Dog” isn’t really a bad movie. That doesn’t make it a good one. It could be a good example of how complicated things have become in our modern society. As I recall the original 1959 film was simply about a lawyer/family man who is bit by a dog and magically starts to turn into one himself, although my memory of it has faded in the almost thirty years since I originally saw the colorized version of it on ABC’s “Wonderful World of Disney.” The plot was simply that and the comedy came from a man behaving like a dog and vice versa and the fact that none of his family or coworkers knew that this amazing transformation had occurred.

This new version, starring Tim Allen (“The Santa Clause” series) as Junior District Attorney Dave Douglas, complicates the story with far more plot. Perhaps the producers feel a modern audience is far too sophisticated for such a silly premise without some sort of compelling storyline to cover it up. Unfortunately the plot, which involves a pharmaceutical company running experiments on a 300 year-old sheepdog to develop a life prolonging drug for human application and the trial of a animal rights activist who is accused of torching the testing facilities of said pharmaceutical company, does little to add to the legitimacy of such a silly premise, nor does it provide any distraction from that silliness. Interesting, and not necessarily unwise, that despite the overly complicated setup, little explanation is offered as to what this magical 300 year-old dog is all about. It is also a smart choice not to turn this comedy into an indictment of the pharmaceutical community as a whole, a crusade better left to more serious endeavors.

It is in the situations of the former version of this film where this one finds the charm it does. Dave has a nice if typical family. He has a perfect wife, who puts up with her husband’s poor behavior, in Kristin Davis (HBO’s “Sex and the City”). His oldest child, Carly (Zena Grey, “In Good Company”), is the rebellious teen. His son, Josh (Spencer Breslin, “The Cat in the Hat”), is the awkward kid who would rather have the lead in the school musical than play football. Of course, Dave’s major flaw before his transformation is that he spends more time at work than paying attention to his family. Much of the typical set up extends in to the comedy of Dave’s K-9 activities; never being able to resist the urge to catch a stick when someone throws it, chasing the neighbor’s pet while in human form, etc. But there are some fresh and sweet moments to be found in the domestic comedy, such as when Dave wakes the first morning after his transformation able to smell every little detail of the kitchen right down to the lemon finish of the cupboards. He approaches every smell and taste with the enthusiasm of a dog even though he now finds little enthusiasm for the taste of coffee. “Bitter. That tastes terrible!” he says happily after lapping it from his cup.

While the filmmakers feel the audience may be too sophisticated to accept a simple plot, they have no problem with insulting the audience’s intelligence when it comes to dealing with Dave’s attempts to communicate in dog form. Allen provides a voice-over performance of the dialog he intends to speak to people while he is a dog, but he can only bark. Now, you’d think it might sink in after a while that everything he says will only come out as a bark to all the humans; but God love him, he can’t help from trying to talk. In fact the voice-over of Dave’s thoughts and dialog while he is the dog is so non-stop it gets to the point where he is simply narrating the dog’s actions to the audience. “I’m chasing a stick now. How silly of me.”

To sell the overdeveloped plot to the audience, director Brian Robbins (“The Perfect Score”) assembles a talented supporting cast. Robert Downey, Jr. (“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”) adds life to the nefarious experimentations of Dr. Kozaks. And when Downey gets his own chance at acting like a dog, he shows up Allen by giving the audience a glimpse of what they could have seen with an actor that offered a little more variance in his behavior as an animal.

It is a shame that Hollywood refuses to trust even the material that they have tested on audiences in the past. As I said, “The Shaggy Dog” isn’t really bad, but I don’t understand why Disney would produce a story they didn’t think an audience could get into without some prodding by a contrived plot. “The Shaggy Dog” is silly fun that is never truly allowed to be fun because it makers never believe the audience will stay with them. Maybe the idea of a man turning into a dog isn’t something that would fly with today’s audiences. So why try it?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dude, if I was a dog and somebody made a movie about me turning into a dog, the transformation would take up the first five minutes of the film. The next fifty-five minutes would be of me "cleaning" myself. "I'll be in the basement!"