Heading up the Cineplex escalators to view The Shaggy Dog, I overheard the following succinct movie synopsis exchanged between two preteen boys: "You know that guy who turns into Santa Claus? This time he turns into a dog." While such an analysis may not reflect kindly on the dramatic range of Tim Allen's oeuvre, it does suggest, pretty accurately, what you can expect from The Shaggy Dog—good-natured, sometimes silly family fun that will play especially well with the under-13 set.
The Shaggy Dog is not really a remake of the old Disney human-goes-to-the-dogs movies (1959's The Shaggy Dog and 1976's The Shaggy D.A) in that none of the original characters (except the sheepdog) appear here. Instead, the movie makes use of the earlier films' basic plot device (man turns involuntarily canine at the most inopportune moments) and hauls it into the New Millennium, adding plenty of computer generated effects, throwing in a politically correct storyline about the evils of animal experimentation, and making the humor a little ruder and cruder. Still, to ensure that mom and dad will shell out those New Millennium ticket prices for the whole clan, The Shaggy Dog offers a series of dog-eared clichés about the importance of putting family first. If you buy lots of popcorn and don't think too hard, it's all reasonably entertaining and sometimes genuinely funny.
Allen (The Santa Clause, Christmas with the Kranks, Home Improvement) plays Dave Douglas, an ambitious lawyer who is counting on his current case to launch his campaign for District Attorney. While he's busy prosecuting Justin Forrester, an animal rights activist (who is also his daughter's popular history teacher) for the alleged arson of a medical research facility, his wife Rebecca (Kristin Davis, Sex in the City), daughter Carly (Zena Grey) and son Josh (Spencer Breslin, last seen with Allen as an elf in The Santa Clause 2) are feeling increasingly neglected. Even when his own daughter takes to wearing a "Free Justin Forrester, Stop Dave Douglas" T-shirt, Dave refuses to believe the defendant's improbable story about witnessing animal cruelty and genetic mutation at the medical research plant. But when a lovable sheepdog that Carly and her boyfriend have inadvertently dognapped from the lab bites Dave, the skeptical lawyer is confronted with evidence of genetic engineering he can't refute. Once he's turned into a dog, he learns a whole lot about both his case and his family. He discovers he's pretty good at fetch, too.
Dave actually morphs backs and forth between human and hound—and the films' best comedy happens during the scenes of dog-onset when the lawyer is still in homo sapiens form but is overcome by canine instincts. Allen plays the part with all the broad gusto required, chasing cats and cars, eating cereal directly from the cereal bowl (sans spoon) and barking "my yard, my yard" at a neighbor's pug. These episodes are frequent in the courtroom, where an incredulous judge (the always funny Jane Curtin) is forced to warn Douglas not to "growl at opposing counsel." I will confess I laughed out loud more than once.
Less effective is the family storyline, which despite its good intentions is a little too paint-by-numbers to be as poignant as it aims to be. It doesn't help that Allen and Davis have no chemistry; the most genuinely romantic scene actually takes place when Rebecca is stood up by Dave on their anniversary and stares forlornly out the restaurant window … only to meet the gaze of her sheepdog standing on the sidewalk with a dozen red roses in his mouth. Early on, the film doesn't do a good job of establishing Dave's negligence—we seem him come home late for dinner a few times, which hardly seems to warrant his family's level of exasperation. And even when Dave eventually learns his lessons and offers his heartfelt love and support to the kids, a little sharper, fresher dialogue could have made the resolve much more affecting.
Still, if my eight-year-old son is any indication, such quibbles won't matter to the average kid; in fact, the lack of subtlety may draw youngsters even more deeply and rapidly into the story. And the adults can have the fun of watching a twitchy Robert Downey Jr. play the evil, money and power-hungry Dr. Kozak, the research executive behind all that animal cruelty and genetic engineering. Other heavyweight actors like Danny Glover (as Dave's boss) and Philip Baker Hall (as Kozak's boss) are effective but underutilized.
Director Brian Robbins (The Perfect Score, Hard Ball) has a more extensive resume as a producer than as a director, but does a nice job here using animatronic effects to persuade us that Shaggy (played by a handsome collie named "Coal") is really Dave. The issue of portraying the actual metamorphosis from human to dog (or back again) is sidestepped by never really showing it. There is always a car or fence in the way, prompting memories of Tim's never-fully-seen neighbor on Home Improvement.
So maybe Allen hasn't come all that far since his sitcom days. And maybe that long white collie beard reminds us of another Allen role. That's OK. He's good at this sort of thing, and he's funny in The Shaggy Dog.Discussion starters
- Carly breaks a lot of her dad's rules—and some laws—in her effort to prove that her teacher is innocent. Is it OK to break rules or laws if it's for a good cause? How do you decide?
- Josh is afraid to tell his dad he wants to be in a musical because he thinks his father wants him to play football—but if his dad knew his son's real wishes, he would support them. Is there something in your life you're doing only for the approval of others? Is there something you're not doing because you're afraid of what others might think?
- Dr. Kozak is working to develop a serum that could extend a human life for 700 years. If such a serum existed, would you take it? Why or why not?
- Is genetic engineering a source of medical miracles or a dangerous attempt to "play God"? Where would you draw the line?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Shaggy Dog is rated PG for "mild rude humor." Most of it has to do with dogs' tendencies to sniff each other in "personal" areas—a bawdy gag that runs a little long but is tame by today's standards. There is also some very mild peril that will likely frighten only very young children (preschool and under). The family at the heart of the story is quite respectful to each other (particularly the siblings), and this movie is so wholesome by today's standards, that it very well could have been rated G.
Photos © Copyright Zeitgeist Films
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 03/16/06
When I was six years old, I saw the first Disney remake of The Shaggy Dog. That movie, The Shaggy D.A., was the first time I'd seen special effects cause someone's face to undergo a transformation. I remember being terrified by the sight of Dean Jones's horrified expression suddenly bristling with white hair and morphing into the reflection of a sheepdog. I had nightmares about that imagery for a long time afterward.
Of course, by the time I was seven, I was used to special effects, thanks mainly to Star Wars. Today, transformations are a dime a dozen on the big screen now, and it's rare to see one that is truly remarkable. So why does the latest Disney remake in this shaggy franchise scare me so much? It has nothing to do with the special effects, but everything to do with the question of why Tim Allen keeps signing up for these formulaic comedies that require him to suffer some kind of ridiculous metamorphosis.
Still, some Christian film critics have been pleasantly surprised by this all-ages comedy.
Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) says, "I'm unsure as to why Mickey & Co. deemed it necessary to tell the story a third time, unless it was to add 21st century updates in the form of potty humor, cultural references and issues: animal rights." He concludes that it "offers just enough positive messages and redemption to reel in parents looking for a moral-of-the-story movie for their kids, and just enough silliness—the mildly questionable kind included—to keep kids lapping it up."
Patty Moliterno (Christian Spotlight) says the movie stresses the idea that "family comes first. It is another of Disney's feel good movies about the father beginning to understand his family and becoming the Dad. So many people identify with this type of movie because while moms seem to inherently understand family and relationships, many times it takes Dad a little longer to understand."
But David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says that the lesson can't save the film. "Nice message, but even Allen's comic dexterity can't make this dog of a film hunt."
Mainstream critics are saying, "No biscuit."