Tim Allen has discovered what Fred MacMurray overlooked but Dean Jones picked up on so many years ago: if you want to avoid being upstaged by the cutesy animal in a movie you need to be the cutesy animal in the movie. Allen becomes the third man in the Disney dynasty to don the mantle of the lovable, furry pup in The Shaggy Dog. The only thing the other two Shaggy Dog films have that this one lacks is a true spark of originality.
For those of you unfamiliar with Disney’s legacy with wooly canines, let me bring you up to speed. In 1959 Fred MacMurray starred in Walt’s first ever live action comedy (it doesn’t get much more original that that). Fred played the father of a teenage boy named Wilby. Wilby falls prey to the little known Curse of the Borgia Ring, a hex that causes him to change back and forth between a human teen and a furry sheep dog. It was cute, funny and full of slapstick action. I’ll acknowledge you need a 50’s sensibility to really get into it…much of today’s YuGiOh generation will probably need a Ritalin or two to follow along.
In 1976, when Disney was beginning to struggle for ideas but not quite ready to start remaking it’s old storylines, they came up with the clever sequel concept The Shaggy D.A.. Dean Jones played a grown up Wilby who decides to run for district attorney against the dishonest man currently holding the position. That pesky Borgia ring problem sneaks back into the picture and Wilby has to rely on his family to help him win the election and overcome his debilitating (but amusing) tendency to revert to dog form at the least convenient times.
Fast forward to 2006 and Disney filmmaking has all but given up on the spirit of its founder and reverted to sequelizing classic animation and cannibalizing old favorites. Tim Allen is the man in the fur this time around and the name Wilby Daniels is nowhere to be found. Also missing is the good old fashioned fun of a cursed ring. In the spirit of incorporating an environmental message, the animal transformation is the result of a genetic infection and thanks to the evils of animal testing it can (and does) spread to everything from a human to a king cobra. Apparently family values just aren’t enough to build a movie around anymore.
Allen plays Dave Douglas, an Assistant District Attorney who hates dogs and neglects his family for his job. His teenage daughter, an aspiring activist (why have a cause when activism in general is so chic), rescues a sheep dog from a local pharmaceutical company accused of conducting illegal animal testing. Little does she know that this particular pup has a rare genetic condition that gives him extra long life. When the dog gives Papa Douglas a nip, it also infects him with its furry little cells which cavort through his veins, converting his cellular structure into doggy DNA. He finds himself taking on particularly canine characteristics with humorous results, culminating in a complete conversion to shaggy state at the most inconvenient moments.
While the movie’s plot may be lacking in originality, Allen takes the comedy to a new high. The storyline and gags are simplistic and predictable, in other words perfect for younger viewers. Adults will get their fair share of laughs too, but more often than not the antics will have the older crowd rolling their eyes, not rolling in the aisles.
Allen is joined by something of an all star crew. Robert Downey Jr., Danny Glover and Jane Curtin are just a few of the folks who flush out Shaggy Dog’s supporting cast. It’s a bit surprising to see so many big names in this sort of movie and with the exception of Downey Jr. all of them are horribly underutilized. Worst of all they end up playing second fiddle to a cast of CG animals, all of whom are infected by the same shaggy virus as Douglas. By the end of the show the human cast are all but abandoned and the film comes closer to being Dr. Doolittle 3 than anything else.
So, what does this new movie have to offer that the originals didn’t? Not much more than CG effects, a twinge of environmentalism and yet another tired rendition of “Who Let The Dogs Out”. Despite the hefty number of computer effects, I was grateful that they weren’t used to make the sheep dog look like his human counterpart. Those movie posters with Tim Allen’s eyes on a dog’s face were starting to give me the willies. As Disney remakes go this one isn’t all that bad, but it’s still sad to see all that talent going to waste on rehashed ideas. I’d like to think Walt would agree.