"Maybe I was meant to do something different…be someone else."—Ted Brooks, D.D.S.
Dogs. Love 'em. I've always owned dogs and always will. Let's say the world's population can be divided into the following four categories: those who love dogs, those who love cats, those who don't like either, those who view either as a good meal. I'm category number one. Period. I'm a dog guy. The beauty of dogs is their dogness, so to speak, their lack of pretension, their simplicity and true-to-faceness, their no-B.S. approach to the way they interact with the world. You never have to wonder if a dog is only being polite in his enthusiasm for you, that he secretly holds a grudge and says terrible things about you once you've left the room. With dogs, what you see is what you get.
Dogs in movies. Well, let's just say I'm less enthusiastic. If a movie manages to maintain the animal's essential dogness, fine (As Good As It Gets is a good example), but far too often films anthropomorphize, reinventing dogs as smart-alecky teens. I don't like smart-alecky teens, so why would I like a dog that acts like one?
When I saw ads for Snow Dogs in which the huskies were sunning on their backs in beach chairs, wearing swim trunks and sunglasses, cracking wise (via digitally-manipulated mouths) to Cuba Gooding, Jr., I got scared…very, very scared.
Facts of the Case
Miami dentist Ted Brooks (Cuba Gooding Jr., Jerry Maguire) is thrown into crisis when he learns he was adopted. Off to Tolketna, Alaska for the reading of his birth-mom's will, Ted learns he's inherited her property and a team of competitive sled dogs, including the wiley and aggressive pack leader, Demon, whose respect he must earn. Meanwhile, romantic sparks fly (sort of) between Ted and tough-as-nails Tolketna bartender Barb (Joanna Bacalso, who also played a bartender in Dude, Where's My Car? and has the primped sheen of a co-host on any of the generic shows on E! Entertainment Television).
Also in the mix is Thunder Jack (James Coburn, The Magnificent Seven), a legendary and crotchety old dogsled competitor who wants to buy Ted's newly-inherited team, particularly Demon. I'll say no more about Thunder Jack since there's no point revealing any of the few surprises this film contains.
What we've got here is connect-the-dots Disney: all the elements I've just describe work together to force Ted to discover who he is, blossoming into the man he ought to be. It's your standard coming-of-age story except the protagonist is about dead-center in his 30s.
Is Snow Dogs a bad movie? Kids'll love it! Yeah, but is it a bad movie? Let me repeat: kids'll love it!
It's actually not what I expected going in. This is both good and bad. On the good side, it wasn't hackneyed, sentimental sports pap about an underdog beating all odds and either winning a competition (a la The Natural) or losing the competition but winning on some metaphysical level (a la Rocky). On the other hand, there isn't much of a dogsled race at all—it's there but it's so devoid of tension and drama it's not all that necessary.
Here's a good: despite the vibe given off by the ad campaign, the dogs don't talk except in one dream sequence. They have been digitally monkeyed-with so they do stuff like smile, wink, and give us wide-eyed double-takes. It's not quite as bad as talking, but it's also not a naturalistic approach to presenting the animals (since this is a film by Brian Levant of Beethoven fame, I probably shouldn't have expected naturalistic). The problem with this digital anthropomorphizing is that it's completely unnecessary. Ted's relationship with the dogs is simply not a major part of the film. It's a side story that's under-developed, played mostly for goofs, and only marginally pays off at the very end of the movie. The whole thing smacks of some Disney suits sitting around a long, glossy mahogany table in a sleek boardroom trying to figure out how focus-group data indicating young Americans love snow sports, dogs, and Cuba Gooding, Jr. can be used to add a couple pennies' value to DIS on the NYSE. I mean, why Alaska? Why dogsledding? None of it seems at all necessary. Which brings me to a large bad:
What is this movie about? Like I said, it's a sort of bildungsroman with a main character way too old for the genre. But, is it a romance? Is it a story about the struggle of a man who's learned he's adopted? Is it about an African-American man coming to grips with the fact he's half white? Is it about a man forging a new relationship with his adoptive mother? It's all of these things—and none of them. The problem is, none of the personal-growth stuff really comes together in any satisfying way. Yeah, Ted ends up with the girl and a new outlook on life, but we know from the beginning how it's going to turn out and the journey there is completely contrived. Am I being too harsh on a movie ostensibly for kids? Probably, but kids aren't going to care about the movie on that level, anyway. The personal story should have either been polished a bit more so it works for adults, or scrapped. Even the Ted/Demon relationship arc is flat (if you want to see a movie about a guy who hates dogs turning into a guy who loves dogs, watch Turner and Hooch—Snow Dogs tries to sell itself as a film in that sub-genre, but it ain't). What the kiddies will love is that, at its heart, the movie is simply a series of set-pieces designed to allow Cuba Gooding Jr. to mug and perform loud and outrageous slapstick. This works, provided you like Cuba Gooding Jr. mugging and performing loud and outrageous slapstick. My advice to Disney on future products (like they need my advice) is stick with the slapstick and, if you're going to work some politically-correct pap in there, limit it to one topic.
The sad thing is, this movie has some excellent actors (mostly of the character-actor variety) who are under-utilized because too many balls are being juggled, so to speak. It's got the likes of Nichelle Nichols (Star Trek's Lt. Uhura), Graham Greene (The Green Mile, Northern Exposure), and M. Emmet Walsh (Blood Simple)—these are consummate professionals who acquit themselves well. The only painfully bad supporting turn is by Sisqo (big surprise there) who mugs so much he makes Gooding Jr. look like Greta Garbo.
Before getting into the technical stuff, let me also note that my dog loved this movie. He was completely taken with scenes in which the seven sled dogs and their Border Collie companion ran roughshod over Gooding Jr. Yes, my dog's eyesight is such that he can recognize TV images of dogs, and hearing an entire pack growl and bark in 5.1 surround was digital heaven as far as he was concerned. If, like Robert Mitchum in Scrooged, you're interested in television for pets, this may be a winner for you.
On to the DVD…
I don't like doing it, but I've got to get ugly. The transfer of the film is full screen. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it—and the Video rating in the Scales of Justice portion of this review page reflects my hatred. Disney can keep on telling us how kids prefer movies in full screen format, but the unfortunate truth is that kids don't write DVD reviews for web sites. I do, and I'll continue to knock the crap out of any release that doesn't present the film in its original theatrical aspect ratio. Rubbing salt in the wound, the image is otherwise pretty close to pristine.
The 5.1 track is surprisingly good, using the surrounds often and effectively without overusing them. It's mostly music and ambient sound (wind, for instance) oriented to the rear speakers, as well as dog sounds, which is particularly effective since there are multiple scenes in which numerous dogs are present.
The disc includes an audio commentary with director Brian Levant and producer Jordan Kerner because, despite their passionate dislike of widescreen presentations, children love commentary tracks. All in all, it's pretty standard what-a-great-time-we-had-making-this-movie commentary stuff. Paying attention for 99 minutes is a bit taxing. Levant's genuine enthusiasm for the project shines through, however, and that's a pleasure. Whatever flaws the film has, at least it wasn't directed by some cynical bastard who just wanted to collect a paycheck.
Ted's Arctic Challenge is a race game in which you control the direction of your sled with the arrow keys on your DVD player's remote. I'm from the Galaga and Donkey Kong generation of game-players and I found the arctic challenge not very challenging. Based on the fact your average modern-day five-year-old is capable of flying a virtual F-16 and has a 3 handicap in video golf, I can't imagine they'd find it much fun.
The three featurettes are thin, electronic press kit stuff essentially divided into sections covering the actors, the location, and the dogs. Of the three, Going to the Dogs is the most interesting, but only marginally. It's 12 minutes about the logistical nightmares involved in dealing with 90 dogs and handlers. The insights are sort of along the lines of, "You might have nine or ten takes that are absolutely atrocious…but then it happens." Wow, what insight. What a clinic in filmmaking. The most interesting portion is when they show the animatronic Demon beside the real dog. It's a startlingly realistic fake. Too bad that portion accounts for about 30 seconds of the entire 12-minute featurette. Chillin' with the Actors runs six minutes, and Tolketna on Ice runs four minutes—neither are worth discussing, really (not bad, just nothing special). One other thing that ticked me off: clips of the film included in the featurettes are all in the original 1.85:1 ratio. I guess they just wanted us to have a taste of how much better the compositional framing would've been if they'd presented the actual film that way.
As with all Disney DVD releases, there are a plethora of trailers and sneak peeks whose combined run-time is slightly shorter than the original cut of Erich von Stroheim's Greed. Before the feature we get Lilo and Stitch, Max Keeble's Big Move, Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch, The Rookie, and Oliver and Company. As if those weren't enough, three more are accessible from the main menu: Return to Neverland, Monsters, Inc. and Beauty and the Beast.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Kids'll love it! (And dogs, too!)
While Snow Dogs is a fun movie for kids, I still recommend staying away on principle. If we keep buying full screen Disney releases, they'll never learn.
Disney is found guilty of lifting its leg and soiling the original theatrical aspect ratio of this film. They ought to be swatted with a rolled newspaper.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Brian Levant and Producer Jordan Kerner
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