SHAGGY DOG - DVD review

The Shaggy Dog may have been made strictly for kids, but it is still cute enough for adults to get a kick out of.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

The DVD keep case for this Wild & Woolly Edition reads, "The first live-action movie ever produced by Walt Disney is on DVD for the first time ever!" I'm pretty sure they meant that the 1959 version of "The Shaggy Dog" was Disney's first live-action comedy; "Treasure Island" and "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" among others preceded it as Disney live-action movies. And I'm not sure, but I think Disney released "The Shaggy Dog" on DVD some years earlier, and this is its second DVD edition. But what do I know; I only work here.

What's clear is that the movie is one of Disney's better live-action children's comedies, and that Disney probably re-released it to help promote their newer, 2006 live-action version with Tim Allen. This older one stars Fred MacMurray, whose Hollywood career in the 1930s and 40s started with serious film noir ("Above Suspicion," "Double Indemnity") and transformed in the 1950s and 60s into lightweight humor and farce ("The Absent Minded Professor," "My Three Sons," "Son of Flubber"). Although he continued to make a few more good dramatic films along the way ("The Caine Mutiny," "The Apartment"), audiences will probably always remember him for different reasons--either as the man with dark secrets or as everybody's favorite father. Few actors have enjoyed such a split screen personality.

"The Shaggy Dog" was the beginning of a long line of Disney live-action children's fantasies embracing magic tokens, body exchanges, and the like, this time involving a teenage boy turning into a sheepdog. The screenplay was adapted from the novel "The Hound of Florence" by Felix Salten, and the movie was piloted by veteran comedy director Charles Barton, who not only directed many of Abbott and Costello's best films, like "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein," but directed some of television's most-popular comedy shows, like "Amos 'N Andy," "The Great Gildersleeve," "Leave It To Beaver," "Dennis the Menace," "McHale's Navy," "Petticoat Junction," and "The Munsters," among many others in a career that spanned four decades. I suppose if "The Shaggy Dog" feels like a 1950s' TV show, we can at least understand why.

The film stars MacMurray as a man who, as the narrator tells us, "loved people but hated dogs." He plays Wilson Daniels, a mailman who dislikes dogs because they've come after him so many times on his route and because he's allergic to them. He is the husband to Freeda Daniels (Jean Hagen) and the father of two sons, the teenage Wilby Daniels (Tommy Kirk) and the younger Moochie Daniels (Kevin Corcoran). Kirk and Corcoran were, of course, Disney staples, as were Tim Considine playing Wilby's best friend, Buzz Miller, and Annette Funicello playing the girl next door, Allison D'Allessio. These four young people would go on to play in dozens of Disney features, and it's good to see and hear from the three male leads on the audio commentary and on the accompanying featurettes. At last report, Ms. Funicello continues to recover successfully from illness and remains recuperating at home.

Anyway, the story involves Wilby, a somewhat nerdy amateur inventor, finding a magical ring that exchanges his body with that of the new neighbor's rare Bratislavian sheepdog. The neighbor is Franceska Andrassy (Roberta Shore), whose father is a recently hired assistant museum curator, Dr. Mikhail Andrassy (Alexander Scourby). When Wilby transforms into a dog, he is still able to think and speak as a human, but he is reluctant to tell his father about his situation, knowing his father's distaste of canines. So, instead, Wilby goes to old Professor Plumcutt (Cecil Kellaway) of the museum and explains to him what has happened. The Professor is very understanding and not at all surprised, his being a believer in the occult, (and not at all surprising coming from Kellaway, the actor having been in "Harvey" about a six-foot white rabbit, "Francis Goes to the Races" about a talking mule, and "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" about a giant sea serpent; obviously, this actor will believe in anything). The Professor tells Wilby that shape-shifting used to happen all the time in ancient days, that the condition may now come and go, but that the only way to cure the problem for good is through an act of heroism. Which pretty much tells you what the rest of the story is going to be about.

The plot thickens as Wilby begins alternating between dog and kid, usually at the most inappropriate times, like during a formal dance at a country club when he's with both Allison and Franceska. Then, there's more girl trouble thrown in, as well as a Cold War subplot involving Russian spies. It's all a bit much, to be sure, combining slapstick comedy, melodrama, romance, and general tomfoolery.

Most of "The Shaggy Dog" is harmless enough but pretty silly. For example, Wilby falls off the roof, lands in a flower bed, and gets up without so much as a sore muscle or scratch. It's that kind of movie. The star of the show is a well-trained dog who steals almost every scene he's in, and what I take to be a most persuasive-looking hand puppet of the dog's head. The film is mostly for children, but it's cute just the same.

What I never understood was if the shape-shifting bit exchanged Wilby's body with the dog's, why didn't the dog take over the boy's body? Now, that would have been fun, to see Wilby acting and barking like a sheepdog. But, alas, it doesn't happen. I guess the filmmakers had all they could do to contain the manic pace of the rest of the shenanigans. And poor MacMurray gets rather lost in the proceedings, despite his having one or two good lines, like when he reads with disgust a newspaper article about a dog awarded a medal of valor: "He dragged a baby from a burning building. Who couldn't do that?"

"The Shaggy Dog" may, as I've said, remind older viewers of 1950s' TV shows like "Leave It To Beaver," "Father Knows Best," "Ozzie and Harriet," and "The Donna Reed Show," but the shaggy dog twist does take it a step further, and it would prompt Disney to do other such movies about anthropomorphic automobiles, mother and daughter body exchanges, magical potions, and heavens knows what all. If it works, you go with it, and Disney did. I don't believe any of these movies lost money.

Video:
The disc contains two screen formats: a colorized, 1.33:1 "full screen" and a black-and-white, 1.75:1 anamorphic widescreen (enhanced for 16x9 televisions). The colorized version looks like the typical colorized films we've all seen, never looking natural or realistic with its washed-out tints. The full-screen size appears to have been taken from the original camera negative, however, as it displays more information at the top and bottom of each frame that was matted out for the widescreen presentation.

The widescreen format is the one moviegoers of the era saw, so it's the one I watched. The black-and-white photography holds up well, the print having undoubtedly been in good condition to begin with. B&W contrasts stand out strongly despite a mediocre bit rate, although the image is not quite so sharply delineated as I would have liked. There is very little grain present, except in occasional sections of stock footage.

Audio:
One can hardly find words to describe the sound reproduction, it's so ordinary. The audio engineers retain the film's original monaural, rendered here via Dolby Digital 2.0. It is clear and quiet, which is all that matters, and otherwise it is restricted in frequency range, dynamic impact, front-channel spread, and, of course, rear-channel effects.

Extras:
This "Wild & Woolly" edition contains not only the two screen formats mentioned above but three major extras. The first is an audio commentary by four of the film's stars: Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, Tim Considine, and Roberta Shore. They admit they hadn't seen the movie in many years and seem genuinely delighted with watching it again. It was the first of dozens of movies and television shows that most of them did together for Disney, and it obviously held fond memories for them. The commentary is only available, incidentally, during the black-and-white, widescreen version of the film.

The second and third items are featurettes. "The Shaggy Dog Kids" is twelve minutes long and includes more reminiscences by the four child actors today, together with plentiful film clips. "Fred MacMurray--With Fondness" is seven minutes long and contains an appreciation of the actor by many of the filmmakers who worked with him. The extras conclude with ten scene selections and a chapter insert; English and French spoken languages; and French and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
"The Shaggy Dog" may have been made strictly for kids, but it is still cute enough for adults to get a kick out of. While a lot of it has dated, that's part of its charm. It's an innocent movie for what is laughingly referred to as a more innocent time. Innocent my eye; but Disney always tried to see it that way. "The Shaggy Dog" is good, innocuous fun.

Ratings

Video
7
Audio
6
Extras
6
Film Value
6