Wednesday, March 22, 2006

REVIEW: The Shaggy Dog (2006)

In historical terms, Walt Disney's original 1959 "Shaggy Dog" holds a place of some significance as the first live action family hit to come out of the House of Mouse and, per the Disney model, establishing the template more-or-less adhered to for the majority that were to follow: A safe, family-friendly comedy, heavy on visual gags and slapstick but located tonally within the same realm as most television sitcoms at the time, and usually "tweaked" by the addition of some fantastical element, either magical or science-fictional in nature.

The story revolved around a magic ring, somehow tied to the Borgias of old Italy, that was cursed so as to afflict any who donned it with periodic transformations into a sheep dog. The "victim" in that case was a young man, the rest of the plot had him putting his "powers" to use thwarting Soviet spies, and the directing chores fell to Charles Barton, a reliable journeyman director who had previous experience in comedies of the supernatural as helmer of "Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein," the first and perhaps greatest of all monster/comedies.

The legion of Disney live-action comedies that followed essentially replayed the same concept with new characters, settings and fantasy-twists, and an official sequel arrived MUCH later in the form of "The Shaggy D.A." and another even later for television. Now, in 2006, we have and "official" remake to reboot the franchise once again, with Tim Allen now in the lead as a man (a D.A., no less!) who finds himself turning into the titular pudgy sheep dog.

Overall, the new film is about as functional and likable as the original, which is to say that it is inoffensive, charming and frequently hillarious, providing that you regard (as I do) the spectacle of Tim Allen behaving like a dog (or giving voice to a dog, depending on the scene) as funny in and of itself. Beyond that, the film is more interesting as a case study in how much the world, and thus, the movies we use to escape from/comment on it, has changed.

Just for starters, there's the hero: In the original, teenaged Tommy Kirk had the title role, (all told, the film resembles nothing so much as a family-skewing cousin to the then-popular "I Was A Teenaged Werewolf",) and the magi-comical hijinks were suggestive of typical teen confusion (title character is freaked out by sudden physical changes, prinicipally involving hair? Hm? Anyone?) At the time, that was the basic dynamic of family comedy: Teens were funny because audiences presumed a universal awkwardness and tendency to foul up humorously as they navigated the transition from child to adult.

That was then, this is now. And NOW, we all know, teenage-hood is worshipped in as the only clear-thinking time in life, and the automatic slapstick heroes of the family comedy are fathers: Dad, the reliable goofball who can always be counted on to have lessons to learn and hangups to be spun into comedy gold. It goes without saying that Family Comedy Dad is a workaholic who's lost touch with his family, especially the kids, and thus requires the aid of mystical intervention to help. To that end, Tim Allen leads as an assistant D.A. preoccupied with his "starmaking" prosecution of a teacher/animal-rights activist accused of sabotaging the lab of a giant pharmacuetical corporation where, he claims, unethical animal experimentation is taking place.

Saying otherwise is the company's slimy chief scientist (Robert Downey Jr. in an underhyped but inspired comedy turn,) but you can be forgiven for guessing that he's lying. You probably ALSO didn't have to guess that the 1959 films' Russian Spy baddies are here replaced by the New Millenium villian's of choice: an unscrupulous mega-corporation. (I think we can safely assume that not even a Disney scriptwriter could think of a plausible reason for Al Qaeda to be involved with magical sheep dogs.) Sure enough, the big business bullies are holding captive and experimenting on a mysterious dog.

Why? Seems this time around the sheep dog is a sacred animal from a Buddhist monastery (where else?) who's DNA may hold the key to the fountain of youth. How? We're told that a genetic mutation has inverted the dog-years/human-years equation, allowing "Shaggy" to age seven times slower than a human being. Folks, I want to shake the hand of the fake-science black belt who thought that up. In any case, in order to harvest youth-serum the baddies have "viralized" the furry one's blood, meaning that when he bites Tim Allen about ten minutes in the plot-proper breaks out: Suddenly the no-nonsense work-addict has heightened-sense, embarassing canine personality ticks and the bad luck to transform into a dead-ringer for Shaggy at inoportune times. Will this help him reconnect with his family? Realize he's defending the wrong side? Help save the day and thwart the scientists? Yeah, I wonder...

But when it works, it works. The slapstick is funny enough, Allen remains a natural talent for such fare, and the animal gags are uniformly amusing. And the film gets just the right amount of mileage out of it's built-in "awww"-factor: Allen, transformed into a dog, finds himself privy to his family's various unspoken (to humans) problems with life and himself in particular. His wife feels she's losing him to work, teenaged daughter wants acknowledgement for all the hard work she puts into her interests, and young son is suffering through football to impress dad but really dreams of landing the lead in the school production of "Grease." There's something to be said for a movie that can evoke genuine emotion from the image of a sheep dog standing at the window of a ritzy restaurant, carrying an anniversary boquet in it's teeth. All together now: Awwww...