Judge Dennis Prince promises this review will be free of groan-worthy canine carol puns like Bark! The Herald Angels Sing or Kibble Roasting on an Open Fire. (heh-heh)
A pack of roaming mutts, an ailing reindeer team, a stick-to-it-ive lead elf, and an unknown animation company combine their talents to whip up a latter-day Christmas classic. But is Nine Dog Christmas all it's barked up to be, or is this just another failed attempt that's gone to the dogs (woof)? And hey Santa, where's my plush toy?
Somewhere an unwritten law exists—maybe a proclamation from the cosmos—whereby no animated Christmas special created after 1975 can succeed joining the canon of best-loved yearly broadcasts. Perhaps there is a higher being (maybe Santa himself) who has decided that our petty bickering and squabbling about political correctness, feigned multi-cultural inclusion, and fist-pounding opposition over the now-vilified "C" word should only be answered with a blunt "flop-flop-flop" of failure for any would-be seasonal product or program that attempts to further exploit our now-hamstrung holiday. Then again, perhaps the rampant greed of corporate executives, entertainment moguls, and World Wide Wolves-in-sheep's-clothing has brought about this pestilence that afflicts every seemingly well-meaning holiday hullabaloo, reducing it to just another cheap Noel knock-off.
And you thought this was going to be a review of a cartoon, didn't you?
Well, this reviewer doesn't necessarily have an axe to grind over the tinsel-heavy trappings of the season, recalling that as far back as 1965 young Lucy Van Pelt had already clued in that Christmas was run by a big Eastern syndicate. But the annual oncoming of plastic Santas and his eight "tinny" reindeer, not to mention the increasingly faux fa-la-la-la-la festivities, all of which overwhelms us now before a single jack-o-lantern can be gutted, is giving breed to all manner of "Christmas quickies"—products or programs that lure us with the promise of joy and joviality, then leave us wondering if it was a lump of coal we just ingested (figuratively or literally; take your pick).
Well, whatever the reason, any Christmas TV special or direct-to-video concoction of late has been either unimpressive or has gone away completely (sometimes both), and Nine Dog Christmas is no exception. It's not that it's bad little lark, but it lacks a certain sincerity that has been paramount in our generation's highest-regarded holiday entertainment fare.
So we meet up with Tank and Snowplow, a couple of homeless pooches scouring neighborhood trash cans for a morsel of nourishment. Before long the wicked dogcatcher, Pierre LaRond (he's French, you see), has scooped up these two wayward tail-waggers, adding them to his stable of "performers" in a traveling canine circus. Meanwhile, at the North Pole, lead elf Buzz has a real problem on his hands: he learns the reindeer have caught the flu and won't be able to make their yearly trip around the world to help Santa deliver all that great free stuff. He enlists the help of a well-meaning but all-thumbs apprentice elf, Agnes Anne. Together, they set off to the city to find some replacement reindeer…and fast! But when Buzz loses his glasses just as he's coming upon what sounds like a collection of the flying feral creatures…well, can you guess who he mistakes for reindeer, and who will have to learn to pull Santa's sleigh to save Christmas?
As far as animated Christmas outings go, this one follows all the usual rules, and lifts just about all the plot devices you've seen so many times before. That works for the Grinch, because that story is full of moral acuity. It works for Rudolph, because that story has a true underdog spirit. It even works for Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, because that story helps explain many of our long-accepted Christmas traditions. It doesn't work for Nine Dog Christmas because the story lacks any deep purpose other than a hopeful expectation of maybe turning a profit in the home DVD market. Even though the picture is narrated by James Earl Jones (scant though his narrative is), includes the vocal talents of skating sensation Scott Hamilton (as Buzz), and sports a collection of musical ditties by Grammy Award winner Gary Morris, the hour-long trek is something more of an endurance test than heart-warming enjoyment. Again, it's not a bad show, but it passes by without really lifting the spirit, much less raising an eyebrow of interest. Curiously, disc distributor Warner Brothers may have realized the yellow-snow factor in this one, as they're offering Nine Dog Christmas in a special gift box that features a plush dog toy and a burst that reads "DVD inside—full length movie." That's never a harbinger of quality entertainment.
As for the disc itself, Warner Home Video offers this in an inferior cardboard snapper-case with the single-sided disc and an ad for the Kangaroo Jack, G'Day U.S.A. cartoon inside. The transfer here is bright and crisp, but the edge enhancement has been tuned up to "11" on this one, resulting in non-stop aliasing that makes every bank of snow look like a veritable video staircase. As the picture features a mix of traditional cell animation paired up with occasional CGI renderings, it appears efforts were made to heighten the detail of the computer-spawned elements, destroying the 2-D action in the process. The audio is presented in a serviceable Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo surround mix that performs well (especially when delivering Garry Morris' compositions).
Extras on the disc seem to confirm the fact that someone knew this film would hardly become memorable, beginning with a featurette, The Dish on Dogs, that educates little viewers about the variety of dog breeds mimicked for the show. Then there's the unusual Holiday Hobbies featurette, in which we watch a woman and two kids crank out some homemade holiday crafts; the sort that obscure refrigerators and trigger attacks by the family cat. How cute. Then there's a set-top game where we see if you were paying attention to the Dish on Dogs featurette. It wraps up with an animated music video of Gary Morris' "The Present," a song that might have actually appeared in the feature…but I can't really remember. Lastly, there are the usual commercials…er…trailers for other Warner DVDs.
At the risk of appearing to be a Grinch or a Scrooge by issuing this proclamation, I simply cannot recommend Nine Dog Christmas very highly. Clearly the effort was there to create something that might linger with us like the sweet smell of nutmeg and cinnamon, but alas, it was not to be. At least it doesn't smell like wet dogs, eh? Oh, and in case you do enjoy this Nine Dog adventure, you might be thrilled to know about the Nine Dogs Night of Fright Halloween special that's in production now. Bow-wow.
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• The Dish on Dogs Featurette
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