With kids’ movies like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Monsters, Inc. all the rage these days, it might seem surprising that Walt Disney’s Snow Dogs is opening this weekend with comparatively little fanfare. But this movie is nothing to brag about. I have seen television ads for the film in recent weeks, but always the same, short clip: talking sled dogs in lounge chairs on a tropical beach. Even aside from one odd question raised by this misleading ad — the dogs in the movie don’t talk, except for a 30-second dream sequence — the movie itself raises this question of its star, Cuba Gooding, Jr.: “Why, Cuba, why?”
Like most Disney films, Snow Dogs stresses Important Themes About Life. Except that it’s not clear exactly what this movie is about, with possibilities ranging from Family, Fatherhood, and Motherhood to Race and Identity, to Love. The multiple things going on here, though, make the movie confusing and scattered rather than complex and exciting. It’s a little bit of an adventure, a little bit about rites of passage, and a little bit of a love story, but none of these is very compelling.
Most of all, this movie is bizarre. I couldn’t make this stuff up: Ted Brooks (Gooding) is a Miami dentist who inherits a cabin and a pack of sled dogs in Tolketna, Alaska. Never having been there, and being curious about his “roots,” he jets up to the great white north to attend the reading of the will. The (brief) complication is that he never knew he had been adopted, by a dentist (from whom he supposedly inherited his zeal for the profession) and his prim wife (Nichelle Nichols).
Three’s more. In Alaska, Ted meets a gruff Alaska musher, Thunder Jack (James Coburn). At least Coburn and Gooding have proven their acting skills; Nichols has excelled mostly at portraying herself after her stint as Uhura in the original Star Trek television and movie series. One of the weirder elements in the film is Sisqo, who plays Ted’s assistant in the dental office. Known to most of us as a bleached-haired and soulfully sexy crooner (and as a high school student in Get Over It), Sisqo does his best here to counter all these characterizations. For his role as Gooding’s goofy sidekick Rupert, Sisqo’s hair is kind of orange-tipped. He doesn’t sing (that’s left for Michael Bolton to do here), and he tends to act like Eddie Murphy on one his less inspired days. Also, he’s kind of gay, if being light on one’s feet and loving to shop are indications. But not too much, because this is the Wonderful World of Disney.
The film was apparently “suggested” by a book: Gary Paulsen’s Winterdance: the Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod. In this case, the term “suggested” seems even broader than usual: apparently, someone thought there should be a movie about sled dogs in Alaska, a race, and some snow. It could have just as easily been “suggested” by White Fang or the infamous Jamaican bobsled team that debuted at the 1988 Winter Olympics (oh, wait, that movie — Cool Runnings — has already been made and forgotten), or a really weird dream someone had.
Alaska, as we know from the 1990s TV series Northern Exposure, is peopled with many quirky, toothless, dirty characters, and at least one hot chick. As in fictitious the series’ Cicely, the social life of Snow Dogs‘s Tolketna (Talkeetna, Alaska, is actually a real place) centers on the smoky, divey bar. The barmaid, Barb (Joanna Bacalso), is foxy, friendly, and can kick a little ass when necessary. And, fortunately for Ted’s love life, Barb is not White. Not that Ted has anything against White people — it’s just so rare to see on-screen interracial romance. Bacalso, who is one of the bright points of this movie, is decidedly beige here: not Black, so she’s visibly different from Gooding, but also not White, so she’s not too different.
Still, Ted’s primary relationship in Alaska — at least until he tracks down his father — is with his mother’s dogs. At first, he has a difficult time with them. There is a small indication at the beginning of the movie that Ted is less than animal-friendly, but as his hostility is directed to a yappy, overly-coiffed poodle in the Miami condo next door to his, it’s hard to blame him on this one count. The dogs in Alaska are quite different, especially macho-alpha dog Demon, the leader of the pack. The dogs don’t actually talk, but they do wink, grin, and come up with a few other human-like expressions, all by way of digital and animatronic enhancement. We’re left to wonder — are they really communicating, or do these scenes all take place in Ted’s head? (Well, I didn’t wonder that much, because I really didn’t care.)
Snow Dogs‘s plot is predictable, the action scenes are repetitive, and the love scenes are stilted and strange: at one point, Ted and Barb snuggle up and howl at the moon together. As Ted, Gooding is all giggles and slapstick. I lost count of the number of times he slipped on the ice or fell in the snow. Perhaps the movie is working with the theory that if you do a schtick a million times, it eventually becomes funny. In this case, it really doesn’t.