In 1959 Disney Studios released The Shaggy Dog, a live-action family comedy filmed in glorious black-and-white. In the original version the family’s teen-aged son Wilby Daniels (played by then-teen idol Tommy Kirk) turned into the shaggy sheep dog and had to convince his father, a dog-fearing mailman (played by Fred MacMurray) to help stop a secret Soviet spy mission. In a 1976 remake, The Shaggy D.A., long-time Disney family-comedy actor Dean Jones played an adult Wilby Daniels, now about to run for public office but still afflicted by his old curse, canine lycanthropy.
In its third treatment, the current The Shaggy Dog, Disney Studies mines the baby-boomer nostalgia wave for another easily bankable, but thoroughly throw-away remake. This time the humorously portrayed curse of shape-shifting is placed on the family dad, Assistant D.A. Dave Douglas, played by 1980s prime-time sitcom family dad Tim Allen. As in The Shaggy D.A., dad is running for political office, while becoming caught up in a nonsensical bit of global-level corporate intrigue. Dave thinks the intrigue is a simple legal battle between juvenile, feel-good-ethics Animal Activism and no-nonsense-adult, bottom-line Big Make-Up.
Loony-lefty daughter Carly (Zena Grey), however, soon finds herself stumbling upon even deeper corporate secrets over at the cosmetics lab. She tangles with evil scientist Dr. Kozak (Robert Downey Jr.) and the lab-coated minions forced to do his bidding. Dad, meanwhile has been too busy poo-pooing her idealism and pushing wannabe actor son Josh (Spencer Breslin) into playing high-school football and neglecting wife Rebecca (Kristin Davis) to notice he is destroying his family and flouting all the family values he claims to believe in.
Along the way, Dave begins shape-shifting against his will. The simple irony, of course, is that dad’s unexpected transformations into a dog become the catalyst for his journey to transforming his personal values. Dave ferrets out the villainous Dr. Kozak (Downey Jr.’s performance is a big yawn), and the Enron-like dastardliness of his boss Lance Strickland (Philip Baker Hall), while flummoxing the judge back at the courthouse. (Jane Curtain’s presence is superfluous, but a welcome relief.) To be sure the audience gets the journey-of-transformation message, the screenwriters attribute Tim Allen’s shape-shifting talents to a vampire-like dog bite from a 300-year-old Tibetan dog-monk (stolen by Big Pharma and smuggled into the U.S. to be exploited for its powers of genetic mutation).
The Shaggy Dog is mostly about cgi special effects, animatronic devices, and precise editing, and results in a feature-length cartoon. Whether by turns a live-action cartoon, sci-fi fantasy, action film, or family drama, The Shaggy Dog never really rises above third-rate TV sitcom fare. What Tim Allen’s physical comedy brings to the film (transforming in and out of dog shape, taking on canine mannerisms), the overdone computer enhancements (the humanly smiling, frowning, eyebrow-raising dog face, the dog meditating in a full lotus position, paws folded together) take away, overriding, suffocating, and extinguishing the potential child-like joy this film chases after.
As in past performances, Allen appears fully nude in numerous scenes here (a gratuitous act that oddly echoes Kenneth Branagh’s perverse post-coital performance in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). Dave misses meeting his wife at a restaurant for their anniversary dinner, as he is pre-indisposed by his canine shape. Instead Shaggy the dog shows up, a bouquet of roses in his mouth. And yet, this chastely "husband as lovable puppy" is played off against the physicality of "kids’ pet." Carly and Josh frequently stroke and fondle Shaggy, even knowing it’s dad, and even after Allen-as-Shaggy repeatedly, pointedly tells the camera he is nude. In classic Disney style, as The Shaggy Dog weaves its conservative "family values" vision "thing," it remains blissfully oblivious to the incestuously perverse, dark underbelly of that selfsame, nearly fifty-year-old vision.