There’s something rather deceptive about the advertising for “Snow Dogs.” If you’ve seen the trailers and television spots, you’d swear the picture was one of those movies showcasing realistic talking critters (as opposed to animated ones)–the sort that have become so commonplace of late, beginning with “Babe” and continuing through the “Dr. Doolittle” flicks and “Cats and Dogs.” But despite what the promos suggest, there’s only one brief scene here in which the pooches speak–and it’s a fantasy moment. To be fair, there are a couple of other instances in which they’re made to wink, nod or otherwise show human facial ticks, but even these are pretty infrequent. Anyone going to the picture with the expectation that it’s going to be a vehicle for such special-effects wizardry will be sorely disappointed.
What the movie proves to be is an extremely old-fashioned family farce, as wispy and insubstantial as the most powdery variety of the titular white stuff. It’s about Ted (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), a successful Miami dentist who suddenly learns he’s adopted when his real mother dies and he’s summoned to Alaska for the reading of her will. Stumbling into a ice- bound town filled with colorful eccentrics–the influence of “Northern Exposure” is obvious, although the locals here are far less filled-in than those from Cicely–he finds that’s he’s now the owner of a team of very personable sled dogs. He also gets involved with a gruff old racer named Thunder Jack (James Coburn), whose relationship with Ted’s late mom will gradually be revealed, and beautiful bartender Barb (Joanna Bacalso), who’s instrumental in persuading this fish-out-of-water that he’s really meant for the colder climes. This frail skeleton of a plot leaves much room for forced romantic byplay, sentimental recognition sequences, race scenes and–most importantly–lots of predictable slapstick involving the dogs, the snow, and even an occasional skunk or bear.
Young children and older viewers looking for some relatively clean, innocuous comedy (a few obligatory gross-out moments apart) will get laughs out of “Snow Dogs.” It’s certainly no worse than the vast majority of live-action flicks that Disney regularly churned out in the sixties and seventies, and is actually preferable to those of more recent vintage, which tend to be cruder and less good-natured than this. (And compared to drek like “Out Cold,” it seems quite wonderful.) Some of the scenery is impressive, too. Still, the picture hardly takes home a gold cup. The writing is pedestrian, and it would be charitable to call Brian Levant’s direction unsubtle. As a result, much of the acting is way over the top. Even old pros like M. Emmet Walsh and Brian Doyle-Murray mug it up rather fiercely, but the worst offender is certainly Sisqo, who plays Ted’s inept assistant; his excesses are as painful as a bad cavity. On the other hand, Coburn is nicely laid-back and unforced, despite his character’s name, as is the dependable Graham Greene in a much smaller role. (On the other hand, “Star Trek” veteran Nichelle Nichols is stiff as a board as Ted’s adoptive mom.)
That leaves Gooding, Jr., perhaps the saddest recent example of the jinx that can come with winning a supporting actor award too early. (It was a blight that doomed George Chakiris, and more recently it’s afflicted both Marisa Tomei and Mira Sorvino, though with “In the Bedroom” and “Happy Accidents” the former seems to be working her way back.) For Gooding, however, this picture represents yet another step in a steep decline–who can forget the embarrassment of “Chill Factor” and “Pearl Harbor”? (Even co-starring with Robert De Niro in “Men of Honor” didn’t help.) To be fair, the gyrations Gooding is forced to go through here aren’t nearly as humiliating as those he endured in last year’s “Rat Race,” where he had to run about for considerable stretches half-dressed; but his eye-popping, bumbling routine is still uncomfortable to watch–there’s an underlying desperation to be liked in his turn that’s simply unbecoming. The canine cast members are all fine; they garner the laughs they’re intended to, and will easily draw oohs and ahs from dog-lovers in reaction to the many closeups of their soulful eyes.
“Snow Dogs” is a mongrel of a movie–scruffy, obvious and slightly disreputable, the sort of thing that wouldn’t be out of place as a first-run offering on the Disney Channel or ABC’s “Wide World of Disney” series. On the big screen it’s decidedly minor-league stuff; the best one can say of it is that it could have been worse.