Back in his youth, Judge Dennis Prince actually feared he was morphing into a shaggy creature. Turns out it was the onset of puberty.
Not your typical "shaggy dog" story…
Following on the success of The Mickey Mouse Club and the embedded Spin 'n Marty short features, Walt Disney determined to make the leap to the big screen with its first full-length live action comedy, The Shaggy Dog. It's a story brimming with what has become trademark Disney delight, featuring a disgruntled dad, an understanding mom, and two sons, one who gets into a truly hairy predicament.
Facts of the Case
Mail carrier Wilson Daniels (Fred MacMurray, The Absent-Minded Professor) has become a cantankerous fellow. His unending cynicism and prickly style seem to be attributed to his fervent dislike of dogs. Having been nagged by, nipped at, and gnawed on by the mail carrier's four-legged nemesis, Daniels has developed an actual allergy to the mangy mongrels. Besides, he has his hands full with his teenage son, Wilby (Tommy Kirk, Swiss Family Robinson), a would-be inventor who usually concocts new way to destroy and otherwise disrupt the Daniels household. When Wilby stumbles onto a rare and accursed ring previously owned by Lucrezia Borgia herself, matters get more than out of hand as the jaded jewelry brings on the incredible effects of "shape shifting." Uncontrollably, Wilby actually morphs into a shaggy dog. He can still think and talk as Wilby, but he's reduced to getting about on all fours and fears the reaction of his dad. Despite younger brother Moochie's (Kevin Corcoran, Swiss Family Robinson) delight at the situation, Wilby searches for a solution to his problem, learning that only an act of heroism can break the spell. As luck would have it—be it good or bad—shaggy Wilby soon finds himself caught up in a confrontation with international spies. Where can you find a hero dog when you most need one?
If you yearn for a fun family gathering within the Wonderful World of Disney, then The Shaggy Dog will fit the bill. It's innocent and unpretentious—and satisfyingly silly. Traditional Disney entertainment typically defies logic in deference to easy-to-digest excitement. The laughs are clean yet effective (in their wholly nostalgic sense) and the characters are reasonable within the context of the story. Fred MacMurray generally scowls his way through the majority of the affair, assuring we never lose track of the fact he's anti-dog (and thereby propelling the standard "isn't it ironic" element when Wilby becomes afflicted). Jean Hagen (Make Room for Daddy) is more than dutiful in her role of Freeda, wife and mom in the Daniels household. Tommy Kirk maintains his boyish forthrightness that gained him a long-running stint with Buena Vista Productions. Little Kevin Corcoran is as polished as you'd expect for a ten-year-old young actor, often slurring through his lines but brimming with little-boy fascination that appealed to target audiences—kids! Annette Funicello (Beach Blanket Bingo) plays Allison D'Allessio, the shared interest between Wilby and his best friend, Buzz (Tim Considine, My Three Sons). This was Funicello's first feature film though she certainly was no amateur since her four previous years on The Mickey Mouse Club.
Director Charles Barton infuses an immediate sense of familiarity to The Shaggy Dog upon introducing us to the Daniels family in their suburban home. Barton had previously directed classic situation comedies on the small screen including Leave It To Beaver, Dennis the Menace, and Family Affair. With that pedigree, it's no wonder the film here starkly resembles a very long-running TV episode of a family-based comedy. This doesn't work against the picture but, rather, gives it the tone and texture that Disney certainly envisioned.
The transformations of Wilby into dog (noted as an entirely fictitious "Brataslavian Sheepdog") are simple in that they're managed in cutaways and never attempting the on-screen dissolves a la The Wolf Man (that would frighten children, wouldn't it?). The actual dog on screen was certainly well trained and typically upstages all those who share scenes with it. The effects head used to portray Wilby-as-dog talking is a very convincing puppet, likely emanating from the minds and hands of Disney's "imagineers." All told, though the effects and situations are simple, none are cringe worthy such that you'd groan, "oh, that looks so fake."
In this new The Shaggy Dog—Wild & Woolly Edition DVD, you'll get not one but two versions of the main attraction. First up is the original 1959 black-and-white theatrical version and it looks absolutely stellar. The source print must have been a gem because image quality here is sharp, stable, and absent of any significant damage (and it's doubtful that Disney DVD commissioned a full-scale restoration). Framed at 1.75:1 and anamorphically enhanced, the image will fill your widescreen monitor perfectly and provide you a largely distortion-free romp with the Daniels family (the only degradation comes in the few segments that utilize stock footage). Also available is a full-frame colorized version that is inferior due to the drab colorization process, likely included here in case the youngsters simply refused to watch anything as prehistoric as black-and-white. There are a couple of interesting things to note about the two versions, first being that the colorized version utilizes an open matte format that provides additional material at the top and bottom of the picture, cropped out in the original widescreen version. Second, and rather confusing, the DVD back cover erroneously reports the colorized version runs 10 minutes shorter than the black-and-white version; this is untrue as both versions run the same length. The audio for both versions is presented in a serviceable Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono mix that is quite energetic yet free of unwanted noise or hiss.
In the extras department, Disney does a good job honoring their flagship comedic feature film. It begins with a running commentary that accompanies the black-and-white version of the movie where Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, Tim Considine, and Roberta Shore reunite and reminisce. They appear to be viewing the film cold, sharing they haven't watched the picture in quite some time. Their anecdotes and observations are enjoyable and reveal some fun information about working in the Disney company though it may appear that their recollections are perhaps a bit inaccurate (Kirk and Corcoran co-starred in the previously-released Old Yeller yet they mention that The Shaggy Dog was their first film together). Next up is a 12-minute featurette, "The Shaggy Dog Kids," through which we meet up with the same four actors today. "Fred MacMurray—With Fondness" is a short but sweetly sentimental piece that pays tribute to the fatherly Disney mainstay. Oddly enough, there are no promotional materials here—no trailer, no TV spots, nor any ad campaign gallery. The dog must've eaten them, huh?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's sort of a bittersweet situation here: this is a fine release of a classic Disney comedy and one that's done well yet it likely only appeared in order to cross-promote (read: cash in on) the release of the 2006 remake. Longtime fans of classic Disney comedy have been salivating for the release of this 1959 original to DVD and might have had to wait longer still if a remake never occurred. In this manner, current Disney management seems to treat its heritage with lesser regard than it deserves, ready to whip up a new concoction (or retread) to coax modern-day audiences yet reticent to freely open its vaults to ensure new generations fully understand and appreciate the real magic that was Disney. To this matter, the current management seems to be lacking faith in the market appeal of its original material.
It shouldn't happen to a dog…
The Shaggy Dog is a fun film that's easy on the senses and genuinely enjoyable for all ages. It offers nearly two hours of relaxing and a bit wistful entertainment that should be rediscovered by some and properly shared with the youngsters among us. Definitely recommended.
This court finds the defendant dog not guilty. Good doggy.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, Tim Considine, and Roberta Shore
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