The Shaggy Dog

© 2006 Disney Enterprises, Inc.
(L-R) Zena Grey as CARLY DOUGLAS and Spencer Breslin as JOSH DOUGLAS in
Disney’s “The Shaggy Dog.” Photo Credit: Joseph Lederer.
© 2006 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Disney proves yet again that they’ve completely run dry of fresh ideas. Here, for the umpteenth time (I’ve lost count), they recycle yet another movie from their vaults. In this case, it’s a remake of the 1959 original starring Fred MacMurray. While their animated movies follow one formula, i.e. underdog overcoming adversity in coming-of-age journey and/or to be reunited with friends and family, the live-action films have etched out another trite formula: The family member who must undergo a metaphysical transformation to realize they don’t spend enough time with their spouse and kids. Try to find a Disney movie that doesn’t follow one of these two formulas. I dare you.

The story begins at a Buddhist monastery in Tibet. Along with the monks, a sheep dog is meditating. A helicopter lands near the monastery, and out pours men with guns. The dog is captured for what purposes we don’t yet know. Cut to the Douglas household. The first order of business is for the film to establish that Dave Douglas (Tim Allen) hates dogs. The neighbor’s mutt loves to relieve himself in the Douglas family’s yard.

Almost like clockwork, the second of only a handful of character dimensions needs to be established to set up the basis for the story. That is, Dave and his wife Rebecca (Kristin Davis) discuss the fact that Dave, an attorney, needs a break from his job.

In keeping with the formula, we also have the introduction of Belligerent Offspring. In this case, Carly (Zena Grey) is not only the angsty teen daughter but she happens to be protesting the activities of the company her father is currently representing in a court case against Carly’s social studies teacher who allegedly set fire to one of their research centers.

Had enough? Yes? Too bad. Disney throws in Josh (Spencer Breslin), the gorpy kid with no athletic abilities but an enthusiastic interest in drama. He’ll come in handy when the father needs to realize what an overbearing ass he’s been to the family that seems to have no problem with the suburbian existence that Mr. Douglas’ salary affords them… but nevermind.

Are we done yet? Not a chance. The corporate evildoer must be as cartoonish as possible. Enter Robert Downey, Jr., whose talent for sardonic wit in “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” and “Bowfinger” is entirely wasted here. I guess you don’t complain when you’ve got a rap sheet and your acting career is still surfing the rim of the casting agents’ B-list.

Through the aid of a couple lackeys, Dr. Kozak (Downey) has a plan to extract some DNA from the dog who happens to be 300 years old. The scientists inform us that normally dogs age seven years for every human year but this dog lives seven years for every human year. Though the old adage about dogs isn’t particularly based in fact, I’m still confused about the logic here. If the dog’s life is extended seven years for every “human year,” then either: The dog’s life is extended seven years for every year that a human lives — which human? Alternatively, the dog lives seven years for every year it lives, in which case the entire equation is pointless compared to just telling us the dog’s immortal. If one is to invoke an explanation for the appearance of scientific legitimacy, at least have it sound like it makes sense. Otherwise you might as well just say it’s magic because how the dog got its powers isn’t going to be nearly as interesting as what he might do with them.

In Kozak’s lab are a number of failed experiments that appear to be chimaeras: A snake with a dog’s tail, a frog with a dog’s head, a monkey that barks, etc. These were intermediary steps in Kozak’s attempt to synthesize the dog’s DNA to make an immortality serum of sorts for human use. Kozak would, of course, be rich beyond the dreams of avarice. So, one figures right away that he doesn’t need the company head, Lance Strictland (Philip Baker Hall). No bonus for predicting that’s exactly the conclusion Kozak comes to. It’s funny that, being a genetic scientist, Kozak doesn’t figure it out sooner and simply whack Strictland… but adults die needlessly only in Disney animated films (to fabricate a motivation for their child’s coming-of-age story, of course).

Needless to say, the dog escapes the lab and finds his way into the arms of Carly and her boyfriend Trey who were planning to sabotage Strictland’s research center. Dave returns home, and here’s where we get to hear Rebecca drop the bomb, “So, how was the parent teacher conference?” Of course he didn’t attend… don’t be silly, they’re not done beating you in the head with how irresponsible Dave is toward his family while he’s out paying the bills for that suburbian four-bedroom and the luxury vehicle that they don’t seem to mind owning.

The dog bites Dave, and in the process Dave begins to have the properties of the dog. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but the premise of the story was that the dog lives a long life, right? But why does the dog bite cause Dave to turn into a dog? I’m not saying it needs to be scientifically plausible… It just seems that somewhere along the way the writers got confused trying to come up with a backstory for why Dave turns into a dog… so they wrote in the immortality bit without thinking about how to connect the two. I know, some of you are going to say that I’m thinking far too much about this… but it’s easy to be distracted by wondering why there’s always a cattle prod in a lab when the story is so formulaic your brain’s left with plenty of spare neurons and time to wander into these lines of thought.

Will Dave repeatedly attempt, and fail, to tell the kids that the dog they see is their father? Will the wife resort to misunderstanding of her husband of umpteen years and sudden mistrust of her kids when they both try to convince her that Dave’s not just being the absent-minded father but a lawyer trapped in a canine body? Do you think the ongoing court case will provide the audience with an opportunity to guffaw on cue while the dog-infected Dave begins to act strangely? Again, you need look no further than every other Disney film ever made (except perhaps “Never Cry Wolf”) to predict what’s going to happen.

I understand that this film is made for children, and inherently because children grow up, Disney perhaps feels that they don’t need to innovate and instead just wait to drop the same, tired plot on another generation of unwitting six to ten year olds. But that proves more and more difficult with the early exposure kids get to movies (show me one kid’s movie that doesn’t have a screaming infant in the audience) and the depth and breadth of other types of entertainment including video games that, while not entirely analogous to film, have a degree of realism and dynamic storytelling approaching cinema which competes heavily for children’s attention these days. It’s an underestimation of the intelligence of your average eight year old to believe his or her rapt attention can be held for long by a film like this.

What’s most perplexing and insulting is the fact that Disney has been beating the same drum for more than forty years and yet parents who should know better continue to avoid any real interaction by dragging their kids to the theater week after week, or plopping them in front of the TV — the surrogate mother of the twenty-first century — to be babysat by movies about how little time parents spend with their kids.

Parents, save yourself the embarrassment and irony and actually engage in some sort of interactive, intellectually stimulating activity with your kids. Sure, this film is only ninety-eight minutes long, but that’s ninety-eight minutes of interactive participation in your child’s life you’d be losing.

The Shaggy Dog • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Running Time: 98 minutes • MPAA Rating: PG for some mild rude humor. • Distributed by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

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