There is a moment in Joe Dante's neato kitsch comedy, Matinee, when Cold War kids Gene (Simon Fenton) and Dennis (Jesse Lee) are sitting in a movie theater, bored silly by the zany (and entirely fictional) body-switching family comedy, The Shook-Up Shopping Cart (a double bill with the equally non-existent The Bashful Bobcat). It was Dante's way of simultaneously mocking and paying tribute to the low-concept filler that Disney made in between what are now the company's enduring classics, and it was a hilarious moment.
While Disney's remake of their 1959 mega-hit, The Shaggy Dog, is not loaded with hilarious moments, it is, as they say, what it is, even if it is that same sort of self-congratulatory jape. Tim Allen plays a dog-hating lawyer who by convenient magic becomes one, makes a fun enough show of it, rolling together nicely the parts played by Tommy Kirk in the original and Dean Jones in the 1976 sequel, The Shaggy D.A. Like My Three Sons star Fred MacMurray in the original, Allen is a Disney contract player, and while he may not be the fatherly comfort that the MacMurray was, he can certainly sell a movie in the same way. People know Tim Allen from Home Improvement; they know him as the voice of Buzz Lightyear from the Toy Story movies; they know him from The Santa Clause, and that is all the selling/warning that most people need.
Not so much predictable as he is dependable, Allen makes the best out of what seems to have become his lot in life, despite his attempts to break out with other grown-up and non-Disney projects. MacMurray had his run, making seven films for Disney between 1959 and 1973. Dean Jones, who first allied with Disney for 1965's That Darn Cat!, stayed on through remakes of it and The Love Bug in 1997. Now it's Allen's turn to rule the House of Mouse (or be ruled by it), and he runs it down ably and with a minimal groan factor (only one reference to butt-sniffing)...and not one but two silly primates to help add to this madcap menagerie of mayhem! Seriously, is there anything funnier than a monkey or a chimp in a diaper, except for maybe a monkey or a chimp in a dress (doing a little dance)?
One thing decidedly un-Disney here is the agenda. Allen's daughter in the movie, played by Zena Grey, is a wannabe animal rights activist, driven to vindicate her teacher whom she believes was wrongfully jailed for a break-in at a local corporate lab. While they don't come out and suggest that these animals are being bashed on the head, flayed alive or forced to watch Skating With The Stars, it is a too-simple, cartoonish depiction of the animal rights issue, though in the case of the scene with the toad with a pug's head, cartoonish is funny (if only a bit unsettling). And speaking of cartoonish depictions, what the heck is Robert Downey Jr. doing mugging as a moustache-twirling corporate baddie bent on marketing a fountain of youth formula? He delivered one of the best comic performances in recent years in 2005's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but here, he has less depth than Snidely Whiplash or Boris Badenov. Ditto for character actor Philip Baker Hall as his boss and a very tired-looking Danny Glover as Allen's boss. They're not exactly "Maybe His Mother Needed An Operation" roles, but not ones that either would want to retire or die after shooting.
Pop movie anthropologists may want to check out the pair of discs that Disney released this week - the original The Shaggy Dog, which was released previously in 2004 in a 45th Anniversary Edition, and the new-to-DVD sequel from 1976, The Shaggy D.A. (1987's made-for-TV The Return Of The Shaggy Dog is still MIA, though Gary Kroeger movies are not exactly big on a lot of wish lists).
The original The Shaggy Dog, the top-grossing film of 1959 (beating out Ben-Hur during that calendar year), will appease purists, who can enjoy the letterboxed black-and-white theatrical version, as well as anyone who finds those black bars at the top and bottom of the screen a nuisance, as the fullscreen colorized version is also on the disc. Granted, the colors are all wrong, simulating what it is like to be colorblind, and the colorized version is 10 minutes shorter, but hey - pretty! As a light, family flick and nostalgia kick, the movie is a lot of fun, marking Disney's first foray into live-action comedy (and incomparably darling Annette Funicello's first movie role). Of the kids in the movie, Kevin Corcoran, who was also cast as co-star Tommy Kirk's brother in the 1957 Disney dog tale, Old Yeller, is the best of the lot. When Kirk turns into a dog, Corcoran acknowledges that he is his brother (the dogs can talk in this version), and he treats him like the pet he never had, reacting very casually to a situation that would have grown-ups (like MacMurray) passing out from the shock. The commentary, by Kirk, Corcoran, Tim Considine and Roberta Shore is enlightening and animated (if a bit saccharine and spotty), and the video tribute to MacMurray is warm and sweet. Another throwback is the Cold War subplot, in which a Soviet-friendly neighbor clandestinely plots to derail the U.S. space program (you know he's evil because he speaks with an accent). You see, Cold War III was almost started by this fat Russian gangster named 'Nicky the Cruise Ship' when he banged his shoe on a table...
The Shaggy D.A. is paler by comparison, but not without its treats. Dean Jones plays Wilby Daniels, a grown-up version of Tommy Kirk's character in the original. He is now a family man, with a wife (husky-voiced Suzanne Pleshette) and a son (Shane Sinutko) and with political aspirations to become the next district attorney. He must first unseat the incumbent, a corrupt do-badder named Slade (played with ham-tastic bravado by Keenan Wynn). There are talking dogs. Some pies get thrown. Mel from Alice gets his comeuppance. Of course, while Dean Jones might be likeable, Tim Conway, in his last of four 1970's Disney movies, steals the show (the scene in which he talks gibberish in order to distract a security guard is a riot). The extras on the disc - a couple of featurettes and a commentary track by Conway, Dick Van Patten and Joanne Worley (now a regular voice for Disney animation) - are nice, though the movie is just one of many subpar money-grabs to come out of the studio, post-Walt and pre-Eisner. The remake might be best compared to it, but at least they're both lovable mutts, even if you are more of a That Darn Cat! person.