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Snow Dogs

(2002)  1/2 Pg
99 min. Walt Disney. Directors: Brian Levant, E. J. Foerster. Cast: Cuba Gooding Jr, James Coburn, Mark Andrews (V), Nichelle Nichols, M. Emmet Walsh.

In one intense scene from the Disney "family" movie Snow Dogs, Oscar-winning actor James Coburn yells at Oscar-winning actor Cuba Gooding, Jr., "You've got something wrong in your head!" to which Gooding responds, "No, you've got something wrong in your head!" Coburn replies, "No, you've got something wrong in your head!" and this goes on considerably longer than one might expect. It also might serve as personal commentary to explain what two Oscar-winning actors are doing in this January-graveyard kiddie flick.

Assuming that Coburn and Gooding have not suffered blunt-force trauma, perhaps they were enticed by the idea that the movie was "suggested by" the novel Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod by respected author Gary Paulsen. Unfortunately, five screenwriters have scrupulously bled out Paulsen's non-fiction account of entering the Iditarod as an amateur and replaced any true grit with strained slapstick, thudding jokes, half-baked romance, stilted drama, and a story which generally bears no resemblance to life on planet Earth, much less Paulsen's novel. The plot, such as it is, traces dentist Ted Brooks (Gooding) from his Miami, Florida practice to Tolketna, Alaska, where he plans to settle the affairs of the mother he never knew he had and return home. Soon, and somewhat inexplicably, he finds himself lingering around and learning to race sled dogs. This all has something to do with getting to know his long-lost biological father (Coburn—don't ask).

Perhaps Coburn and Gooding relished the chance to work with Nichelle "Uhura" Nichols? Nichols plays Gooding's adoptive mother, and she joins a few other surprisingly respectable players—M. Emmet Walsh, Brian-Doyle Murray, and Graham Greene—in support of this, er, mush. The rest of the local yokels come straight from central casting: the buxom love interest, the crusty shopkeepers, and the "youth culture" representatives (with day-glo hair). Sisko plays Miami's yokel, a dopey dental assistant.

Levant, director of the Flinstones films and Beethoven offers nothing to his cast or his audience. The production values, excepting a few nice natural vistas, are cheesy; the all-important dogs almost always look fake, conspicuously animatronic and computer-enhanced. Conspicuous product placements don't help. Levant stages each scene as an opportunity for Gooding to fall on his patoot, and seems to invite the cast's hammy overplaying (the target audience being...six-year-olds?). Levant presumably had no bright ideas about sprucing up the dialogue, either, which includes such gems as "Alright, you roughnecks. Give me back those knives" and "Who's the alpha dog now?"

Quality family films with similar themes include Fly Away Home and Disney's own Never Cry Wolf, but this lazy "effort" settles for simplicity. Over-the-top humor and the dog "characters" (despite misleading ads, they only talk in a brief fantasy sequence) should appeal to li'l' kiddies. However, these "virtues" may be blunted by the sometimes intense gnashing of canines and cliffhanging action. A precious few tidbits about sled dog racing are offered, and, certainly, those hoping for a serious discussion of animal rights should apply elsewhere.

Finally, the film is less a shaggy dog or an underdog than simple road kill.

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