Generously based on a true story that was accounted more accurately in the Gary Paulsen's book, "Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod," Walt Disney's "Snow Dogs" is their latest unsuccessful foray into live-action. The film is a clunky fish-out-of-water story that mistakes manipulation and a sluggish pace for heartfelt emotions and entertainment value. If the restless children in the movie theatre are any indication, "Snow Dogs" is just as uninteresting for them (the target audience) as it is tiresome for the adults.
Theodore "Teddy" Brooks (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is a Miami-based dentist who has taken over the business from his late father. A bombshell hits his comfortable life when he receives word that his birth mother--a woman he never knew existed due to being kept in the dark all his life about being adopted--has died in the sleepy Alaskan hamlet of Tolketna.
Making his way to the frigid north to get his mother's things in order, he finds that she has not only left him a house and nearly all her possessions, but also her eight beloved sled dogs. A city slicker through and through who is, at first, clueless about small-town living, Teddy quickly grows intrigued by his parental roots, including a gruff, Caucasian father by the name of Thunder Jack (James Coburn). He also forms such a close bond with his new pets, the town itself, and kind bartender Barb (Joanna Bacalso), that he begins to doubt if his previous path in life was the right one.
"Snow Dogs," directed by Brian Levant (1992's better dog movie "Beethoven"), bears a stirring resemblance to Disney's other dog sledding picture, 1994's "Iron Will," but has not acquired even a fraction of that film's effectiveness or realism. Levant and the five(!) screenwriters onboard (Jim Kouf, Tommy Swerdlow, Michael Goldberg, Mark Gibson and Philip Halprin) try too hard or too little at each and every turn, making the film overflow with slapstick moments that are haphazardly counterbalanced by syrupy, if well-meaning, scenes of failed melodrama.
For a movie called "Snow Dogs," there isn't nearly as much screentime as one would expect from the title canines. They are cute enough, but do little more than occasionally prance around winking and smiling at one another. This fantasy element never gels with the human characters, namely Teddy, who gets a romantic subplot with Barb that is low-key and mildly sweet, but seriously slows down the pacing of a movie that is being targeted at youngsters.
Former Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding Jr. (1996's "Jerry Maguire") has fallen so far in recent years that it is almost unbelievable he could have ever had a chance at an Oscar, let alone receive one. As Teddy, Gooding Jr. goes for such exaggerated facial expressions and body movements that it occasionally feels embarrassing watching him slum it. The same, but to a lesser degree, could be said for James Coburn (also a recent Oscar winner for 1997's "Affliction
"), as Teddy's unlikely biological dad.
Less painful to watch, if only because of their thin resumes, are Joanna Bacalso (2000's "Dude, Where's My Car?
"), as Barb, and Nichelle Nichols (of the "Star Trek" series), as Teddy's loving adoptive mother. Bacalso is a fresh-faced beauty who could probably be very good in a stronger, less thankless role. Nichols nicely conveys the warmth and regret her character feels for never having been honest about Teddy's past.
When the cinematography in a movie is its strongest point, you know you're in trouble, and that is exactly the case with Thomas E. Ackerman's (2001's "Rat Race
") exquisite views of Canada's snowy mountains and vistas (posing as Alaska). What remains is overlong and tedious. Levant, so one-note a director that he has never made a feature film outside of the family-oriented arena, has hit a brick wall with "Snow Dogs," and any parent who mistakenly takes their children to this will end up feeling like they have, too.
©2002 by Dustin Putman