Judge Erich Asperschlager has a new leash on life.
"Dog City! / Everybody wants to go / Dog City! / Every crazy cat I know"
It's a Friday night in May of 1989. In a small suburban Connecticut house, a pudgy, bespectacled 11-year-old has settled down in front of the TV to start his weekend with the latest episode of The Jim Henson Hour. Instead of a series of sketches, songs, and segments, however, he is treated to an hour-long mini movie—a puppet parody of '30s noir called Dog City, and it is one of the funniest things he has ever seen. Fast forward 21 years, and that same boy—now a man with graying hair and contacts (still pudgy, though)—sits down to re-watch the special that so captivated him as a kid. He hasn't seen Dog City since it first aired. Will it be a re-creation of a glorious childhood evening or a disappointing experience that will make him long for the blissful ignorance of nostalgia?
Can it be a little bit of both?
In case you couldn't tell, I am the boy in that story. Shocking, I know. I still remember how much fun I had watching The Jim Henson Hour in general, and Dog City in particular. Jim Henson walked a fine line between making television and movies for kids and for adults. Edutainment like Sesame Street may have been aimed at a younger set, but between The Muppet Show and its spin-off movies, The Dark Crystal, The StoryTeller, and The Jim Henson Hour, he proved that there really is such a thing as "family programming"—stories that appeal to kids and parents alike.
Henson made the Primetime Emmy Award-winning Dog City in the final stage of his career, a year before complications from a freak respiratory infection ended his life. Henson's premature death was tragic, but it underscored the rich body of work he left behind. That's one reason I'm thrilled that lesser-known specials like Dog City (retitled for DVD as Dog City: The Movie) are seeing the light of day on DVD. Even if the tangled rights situation between The Jim Henson Company and Disney prevents the inclusion of the wrap-around segments from the original Jim Henson Hour episode, this release a real gift to fans.
Narrated by Muppet dog Rowlf, Dog City is the story of canine hero Ace Yu (voiced by Kevin Clash), who takes over the bar that belonged to his Uncle Harry, who was killed by mob boss Bugsy Them (Jim Henson) for refusing to pay protection money. When Ace also refuses to pay, Bugsy sics his canine goons, Scruffy (Gordon Robertson), Laughing Boy (Rickey Boyd), and Mad Dog (Steve Whitmire) on him. Ace manages to turn the tables on Bugsy with the help of spunky heroine Colleen Barker (Fran Brill), but when Colleen is kidnapped by Bugsy, Ace is forced to rethink his philosophy of nonviolence and take one last stand to save the citizens of Dog City.
I wanted Dog City to be the same mind-blowing experience it was when I was 11. It wasn't. Despite solid Muppet production values, it falls well short of Henson's best work. It doesn't take enough advantage of the gangster genre it parodies. The main character isn't terribly compelling. The jokes are hit-or-miss. The story drags in places. (Do I need to give up my Muppet Club fan card yet?)
There's a lot to like about Dog City, but there are also a lot of missed opportunities. For one, I expected a lot more dog puns. They throw in some solid canine gags, including clever references to dog years, characters using the expression "Oh my Dog!," and the scene at the wharf where Mad Dog is thwarted by Ace's incidental use of the words "sit," "stay," and "roll over." Most of the running gags, however, aren't canine-specific. The last names of the main hero and villain lead to some Abbott and Costello-esque "Yu" vs. "Them" jokes that, while amusing, have nothing to do with either gangsters or dogs.
The biggest problem with the movie is that Ace is boring. He doesn't fit any noir archetypes. He doesn't have an interesting back story. He's just…there. Colleen suffers from a similar blandness, though she has some sass. Bugsy's gang is far more colorful and fun to watch. I just wish they'd done more with his henchmen, and with Miss Belle, Bugsy's moll.
But enough of what my 32-year-old self thinks of Dog City. What about that inner 11-year-old?
Dog City may not be the best thing Jim Henson ever did, but a lesser Jim Henson special is still better than most family programming out there. Sure, it could do more with the characters and the setting, but there's still plenty of goofy Muppet fun to be had. There are some great one-liners and sight gags—even a few jokes aimed squarely at an adult audience. For example, in Colleen's nightclub number, "A Dog's Best Friend," she sings the line: "Don't care if he's a big dog / I don't care if he's rich / He'll be my ever-lovin' puppy / and I'll just be his—" only for Rowlf to stop her cold and say "Welcome to family programming, folks!"
The songs aren't that memorable, but they're well-written and fun. The visual style and direction capture the noir feel. And although story has a slow middle act, it really picks up at the end. Like any good gangster flick, there's a car chase that ends with a stand-off at a wharf. This one just happens to include Rowlf following behind, playing a piano mounted to the front of a bicycle.
The DVD itself is harder to defend. The transfer is soft and the sound is muffled. The only bonus features are brief slideshows of concept art and behind-the-scenes photos. The lack of extras is even more galling considering that when the special originally aired, it was as part of a larger episode of The Jim Henson Hour that actually included a brief making-of segment. In a perfect world, that original footage should be here, along with a bonus episode or two from the animated spin-off series. Anything to pad out this disc's 40-minute run time.
As much as I'd like to put Lionsgate in the dog house for releasing such a bare bones disc (get it, "bones"?), I'm just thankful that Dog City is finally out on DVD. It's not as great as I remembered, but there's enough pun-filled goodness to make Dog City a real treat for Henson fans old and new.
Good dog. Not guilty!
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