You can be pretty much assured that any comedy in which a man turns into a dog will have certain things. There will be jokes about butt-sniffing, lifting your leg to urinate, and scratching fleas. There will be at least one scene where the main character wakes up naked after turning back into a human. Finally, there will be a montage set to the tune of “Who Let the Dogs Out.” Apparently there is a rule that the song must be used in every movie prominently featuring a dog, even though everyone in the world is sick of the damn thing. The Shaggy Dog has all of these elements although, amazingly, they left out the joke about drinking from the toilet. That’ll probably be in the deleted scenes on the DVD.
In this remake of the old Dean Jones comedy, Tim Allen plays Dave Douglas, a Los Angeles prosecution lawyer who has aspirations to become a D.A. These aspirations take up much of his time, causing him to be neglectful of his wife (Kristin Davis) and their two children. He is assigned to a high-profile case involving a high school teacher (Joshua Leonard from The Blair Witch Project) who is accused of setting fire to a company in protest of animal rights. The teacher thinks illegal testing is occurring at the company but proclaims his innocence on the fire. His students – one of whom is Dave’s teenage daughter Carly (Zena Grey) – rally on his behalf. There is considerable friction between father and daughter on the issue.
Of course, we know that something really is going on. Grant & Strictland, the company in question, is tinkering around with genetics in an effort to help their ailing wheelchair-bound owner (Philip Baker Hall). The head scientist is Dr. Kozak (Robert Downey, Jr.), who has become corrupt from his dreams of finding a miracle cure. He arranges for kidnappers to fly to Tibet and snatch a 300 year-old sheepdog who has a reverse life span: instead of aging seven dog years for every human year, this pooch lives seven years for every human year. Kozak believes that the dog’s DNA can be used to help people live longer lives – a discovery that stands to make him very rich.
Long story short: Carly and her boyfriend casually enter Grant & Strictland and set the dog free. Dave is then bitten by the pooch and starts performing canine behaviors. When the urge is strong enough, he turns completely into an identical sheepdog. His family doesn’t realize this, despite his attempts to spell it out for them using Scrabble tiles. They think he’s just engaging in more workaholic behaviors, even though he (as a dog) shows up for a wedding anniversary dinner with a bouquet of roses in his mouth. Sure, men are dogs, but come on! That Dave uncovers the nefarious plot of Kozak is a given. So is the fact that he eventually comes to defend the teacher. So too is the Important Lesson he learns from his transformation. (Make time for the family!)
Watching The Shaggy Dog is kind of like eating at McDonald’s: it’s not very substantive, but you know exactly what you’re going to get, with no surprises. This is a perfect example of a very safe, generic family film. It has no real originality or ambition; its sole purpose is to be easily digestible and even predictable. Once infected with the dog gene, Tim Allen chases cats, fetches sticks, and shakes water off himself after emerging from the shower. Anybody given the assignment to write a movie in which a man turns into a dog would come up with these same jokes. There’s an old saying in Hollywood: “The script will write itself.” This one surely did.
Tim Allen is working completely in his comfort zone here, delivering a pleasant, if slightly bland, style of “family” humor. (It should be noted that he spends large chunks of the movie narrating the interior thoughts of his canine alter ego.) More interesting is the performance of Robert Downey, Jr. Because Downey is such an offbeat actor – and such an unexpected choice to play the villain in a Disney movie – he provides some much-needed juice to the film. It’s weird how The Shaggy Dog goes to extremes to follow a formula, then makes a completely subversive choice of casting for the bad guy.
Young children, who perhaps won’t see every joke coming a mile away, may like the movie to a degree. Adults will most likely find it tolerable at best. The Shaggy Dog isn’t in any sense disagreeable; it’s a harmless bit of fluff by any measure. It is not, however, imaginative enough to achieve anything other than mediocrity. Surely the concept has more potential than this. Having Dave drive with his head stuck out the car window does not seem like a burst of comic inspiration. I can picture all kinds of ways that this could have been a hilarious, raunchy R-rated comedy. But even if the makers wanted to stay safely in the PG realm, they could have explored the idea more fully instead of just assembling a series of easy jokes.
A strange, and perhaps disturbing, final note: There is a plot development in which Kozak injects the Philip Baker Hall character with a drug that will leave him alive but paralyzed for several months. The story never returns to this development, suggesting that the poor old man will be suffering for a long time. On one hand, this is more interesting than anything else in the film; on the other, it’s yet another example of how lazy The Shaggy Dog really is.
( out of four)
The Shaggy Dog is rated PG for some mild rude humor. The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.
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