Thursday, 9 March 2006

The Shaggy Dog (2006)

Even a shaggy dog story would be more interesting than this

Tim Allen plays yet another Disney dad who, through an unfortunate mishap, learns to be a better husband and father.

This family movie comes just in time for the mid-semester school holidays. Should parents visit the cinema with their children? Parents will want to know whether the gags are funny enough to keep the children in their seats, and whether the movie is sophisticated enough to entertain the adults as well.

The Shaggy Dog stars Tim Allen, who is probably the Hollywood acting equivalent of Jack Neo. Since Home Improvement ended its run, Allen has made a career playing likeable Everyman characters in several crowd-pleasers like the Santa Clause series and the entertaining Galaxy Quest.

A goofy spin on the werewolf tale, Dave Douglas, a career-oriented, family-ignoring lawyer turns into a canine after he is bitten by a mutant, 300-year-old Tibetan sheepdog. Tim Allen isn’t the obvious choice to play the laywer. There’s the riotous Rob Schneider, who pulled off multiple animal impersonations in The Animal (this installation of Shaggy Dog has the lawyer acting like an animal even in his human form), or the funnyman’s funnyman, Eddie Murphy, who speaks with animals in the Doctor Doolittle movies. But since this is a Disney movie, we can’t have the adult ribaldry of Schneider or Murphy. Tim Allen’s transformed into a rather fat, bearded, jolly Santa Claus in his earlier movies, so he does come with prior relevant experience for The Shaggy Dog.

Since this movie is targeted to families with young children, the comedy is necessarily simple and predictable so kids can get it. With the assistance of CGI, The Shaggy Dog rides on Tim Allen’s ability to contort his face and exhibit the physical behaviour of canines. Sight gags and physical comedy rule the movie. Aside from the usual jokes about dogs sniffing butts, and a questionable scene where Tim Allen, galloping on all fours, knocks down an elderly lady in a hit and run accident (why the team of FIVE writers okayed that gag is mysterious), concerned parents will be glad to hear that there is nothing objectionable with the comedy.

At no point in this movie will parents be required to explain the plot to their children. The writing team has made sure that plot rolls out at a leisurely, digestible pace, and that any fantastic plot device occurs at least twice – so that the children will figure it out, or at least expect the device to occur the third time round, probably near the climax of the movie to resolve the plot.

The obligatory villains in this piece is played by Robert Downey Jr. He hams it up as a mad (but more than capable) scientist, who is just one step from riches and fame, and an immortality serum. Since (and I like to remind my readers again) this is a Disney movie for the family, the villain is larger-than-life, but mostly harmless and not scary at all (we wouldn’t want your 10-year-old to wake up at night screaming, do we?). Even with these restrictions, Robert Downey Jr appears to have a ball of a time, even managing to look like a younger version of Peter Sellers’s Dr. Strangelove.

Parents do not have to be warned that there’s a strong family values message in this movie. It’s expected in every Disney movie for the kids anyway. I’m only mentioning that contrary to expectations, the message is brought across in an entertaining and even subtle manner, due to competent scriptwriting and the believable acting of Tim Allen’s co-stars. Yes, Dave Douglas has to learn how to spend time with his wife (Kristin Davis) and angsty kids (Zena Grey and Spencer Breslin), but thanks to the constant gags, the point isn’t hammered home in a preachy manner that grown-ups are allergic to. Similarly, the animal welfare message is delivered through stealth, and I was personally tickled by how the movie poked fun at radical animal rights activism.

Readers should also know that this is the third remake in the Shaggy Dog franchise. While it does update the Shaggy Dog movie formula, using the angle of science and genetics instead of mysterious curses. As for innovations like the central character exhibiting canine behaviour or talking to a menagerie of animals, Rob Schneider and Eddie Murphy have done this already, and better than Tim Allen’s likeable but decidedly average effort. This remake is frankly unnecessary.

The Shaggy Dog would do fine for a family outing, especially if you have children less than 10 years old. It is very watchable, but not particularly memorable. Otherwise, the sanitised and tame Disney formula may prove to be trying to those with adult sensibilities.

First published in incinemas on 9 Mar 2006

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