The Shaggy Dog

Disney’s kennel has served them well, either in live action or animated form. When it comes to shaggy dog stories, the studio has rarely barked up the wrong tree. Released in 1959, The Shaggy Dog was the studios first live-action film, and modestly shot in black and white, became instantly profitable. The tale of a young boy (Tommy Kirk) afflicted by an ancient spell which transforms him into a four-legged hairball, The Shaggy Dog spawned one theatrical sequel and numerous television films.

Upholding their effort to recycle previous hits (The Love Bug, Freaky Friday, The Parent Trap), Disney unleashes The Shaggy Dog, a family-friendly remake starring Tim Allen as an assistant District Attorney struggling with the dog days of family-versus-career. Chasing after his dream job leaves Dave Douglas (Allen) little time for his devoted wife Rebecca (Kristin Davis), distant daughter Carly (Zena Douglas), and aspiring son Josh (Spencer Breslin). Every now and then he tosses his family a bone, but Dave has a professional itch to scratch.

So does Dr. Kozak (Robert Downey Jr.), whose experiments in animal DNA and genetics lead his team to Tibet, where they abduct an ageless 300-year-old Collie from a monastery. When Dave agrees to defend his daughter’s animal rights activist teacher, he becomes infected by the Collie’s blood, transforming him into a shaggy dog. It took a litter of writers to come up with this update, who then allow the plot to dissolve into one butt-sniffing joke after another.

Animal activism brings the story up to date, but the writers rely on toss-and-fetch jokes and pratfalls to generate laughs. Some work, others don’t, but the target audience won’t mind. Kids will delight watching Allen slip in and out of his canine coat, throwing caution to the wind as if he’s playing to the back row of the Astrodome. The larger-than-life performance is necessary to accommodate the slapstick hoops the writers force Allen to jump through. It’s not subtle but it is effective.

The Shaggy Dog wears its heart of on its paw, capitalizing on Dave’s transformation to better understand his family. The warm, fuzzy moments are extremely palatable, like when son Josh confides in his canine friend what he can’t say to his father, or when Dave as dog shows up for his anniversary with a bouquet of flowers. These quiet, little moments generate a tremendous amount of goodwill, allowing us to forgive the predictable. Kristin Davis is sincere as Dave’s adoring wife, while Jane Curtin swings a mean gavel as a judge with immense patience.

Director Brian Robbins keeps everything light and breezy, but has difficulty teaching this old dog new tricks. State of the art visual effects upgrade the transformations, but for all intents and purposes, this is the same old Shaggy Dog story.

Families will find more inspiration, adventure and heart in Eight Below, a throwback to Disney films like Old Yeller and The Incredible Journey. Even though the film stars a rugged Paul Walker, the emphasis is on the team of sled dogs who dominate half the story, based on true events.

Walker stars as Jerry Shepard, who despite an oncoming storm, agrees to sled geologist David McClaren (Bruce Greenwood) to a remote area to retrieve a a meteorite. When McClaren is injured and the men are separated from the team, the dogs are forced to fend for themselves.

Like The Incredible Journey, the scenes of the dogs surviving hold much more emotional and physical ballast than those of their human co-stars. The impact is diminished by director Frank Marshall’s insistence on giving both stories equal screen time. It’s enough to know that Jerry moves heaven and earth to save his four-legged friends. The real story is back on the ice with the dogs, who fight the elements and nature in order to survive. That half of the story will keep you frozen to your seat.

Disney’s Dog DaysStudio Returns To Furry Friends for Inspiration

The Shaggy Dog

Tim Allen, Kristin Davis, Zena Grey, Spencer Breslin, Danny Glover, Robert Downey, Jr., Jane Curtin. Directed by Brian Robbins. Rated PG. 92 Minutes.

Larsen Rating: $5.00

Eight Below

Paul Walker, Bruce Greenwood, Moon Bloodgood, Jason Biggs. Directed by Frank Marshall. Rated PG. 120 Minutes.

Larsen Rating: $7.00

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