SHAGGY DOG, THEPG
For those who may not be aware of the original movie on which this is remake is based, worry not: The Shaggy Dog has nothing to do with that not-so-Great Dane Scooby-Doo and his owner. Nor is there any Austin Powers-styled shagging. Thank goodness. Walt Disney Pictures' ninth theatrical redux of one of its kid-friendly pictures of yore is, rather, a surprisingly touching family comedy with real emotion. Yep, it's got some slapstick, but this werewolf tale, essentially, of a man who periodically turns into dog (a bearded collie, by the way, and not the sheepdog some lazy critics have called it) rarely descends into slap-shtick: When comic Tim Allen, one-time star of the broad TV sitcom "Home Improvement," first begins displaying canine tendencies over the breakfast table, he seems less like a man playing a dog than a dog who looks like a man. It may seem preposterous to suggest there's nuance in a man lapping up his cereal with his face in the bowl. Yet Allen's acutely observed replications of doggie behaviors is startling. If he were metamorphosing like that onstage, a la Zero Mostel in Ionesco's Rhinoceros, you'd be handing him a Tony Award.
Less a strict remake than a smushing together and re-imaging of 1959's The Shaggy Dog, where Tommy Kirk played the teen wolf, er, dog, and 1976's The Shaggy D.A., with Dean Jones playing the character as a grownup, the new version takes off from the thoroughly modern-day premise of a father, big-city deputy D.A. Dave Douglas (Allen), whose career keeps the well-meaning type-A'er from spending time with his family-wife Rebecca (Kristin Davis, in a blandly written role she doesn't elevate), rebellious animal-activist teen daughter Carly (a wonderfully naturalistic Zena Grey) and junior-high-school son Josh (Spencer Breslin), who's purposely flunking a class in order to get kicked off his benchwarming position on the paternal-pride school football team and follow his muse to the drama club (which apparently has much lower academic standards, but whatever).
To show how much the world has changed, the original had Fred MacMurray as a mailman dad who came home to dinner every night, and who with his wife could afford to join the local country club, like all the rest of their suburban neighbors. If it sounds as if our quality of life has gone a bit downhill since then, the original also had the dog-hating dad armed with a shotgun and threatening to actually shoot the mutt that his kid, unbeknownst to him, would turn into.
The new movie finds D.A. Dave prosecuting an animal activist accused of setting fire to a pharmaceutical-company lab that he believed was doing animal testing. And boy, is he right: Despite the venal company's insistence otherwise, head scientist Dr. Kozak (Robert Downey, Jr.) has discovered an animal with a unique genetic mutation-a sort of X-Dog-who's lived 300 years. Kozak wants to distill the fountain of youth, and all the rabbit/snake/dog/frog/monkey hybrids he's brought to unholy life like the veritable pets of Tod Browning Freaks be damned. Somehow, director Brian Robbins makes us both laugh with and care about these semi-anthropomorphic animals. Seeing the barking rabbits do tai chi, or a cobra happily riding in a car with its head out the sunroof and its tongue flapping, is inspired visual silliness. That Robbins and the multitude of screenwriters evince a genuine sympathy for these creatures while retaining a hard modern-day edge (best evidenced in Jane Curtin's believably no-nonsense judge) shows remarkable balance.