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Rated 2.98 stars
by 1392 people

ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Can't Go Wrong with Dogs and Snow
by Adam Hakari

You can count on Disney to make things safe and sound for the entire family. Even last fall's Monsters, Inc., about monsters who ran an entire metropolis by scaring the bejeebers out of little kids, was a cuddly, G-rated fantasy featuring characters more likely to have kids going "Awww!" than "Ahhh!". The same rules apply in the live-action world, as well. The new family comedy Snow Dogs features the most adorable bunch of canines this side of 101 Dalmatians, and even though at times they may look a tad frightening to kids, the titular animals are sold as cute, mischievous, and perfect models for stuffed dolls. Snow Dogs is your typical live-action comedy by way of the Disney Studios, played safely and for the easiest laughs possible. However, it's a cut above Disney's recent spate of comedies with human actors. With a parental joke or two thrown in and, aside from one scene, no talking animals, Snow Dogs turns out to be a better film than you might have expected. On the other hand, that's akin to saying a root canal wasn't as painful as you predicted.

Dentist Ted Brooks (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is living the good life in warm, sunny Miami. But over the next few days, he finds many a bombshell dropping around him. One day, Ted learns that he was an adopted child. In no time, Ted finds himself on a tiny plane headed for tiny Tolkenta, Alaska, home of the annual Arctic Challenge dogsled race (apparently, the filmmakers couldn't incorporate the Iditarod into the plot). There, more secrets are revealed, as Ted discovers his birth mother, a dedicated dogsled racer, has  bequeathed to him seven beloved canines, plus a cute little dog named Nana. The dogs, who become the fixation of local grizzled old guy Thunder Jack (James Coburn), take an instant disliking to Ted. No wonder he begins thinking about selling the dogs and heading back to Miami. But over time, Ted grows to love the pooches (as well as the local tavern owner, played by Joanna Bacalso). In order to prove he's more than just a city slicker, Ted starts training to enter the Arctic Challenge race himself.

I'm glad Snow Dogs goes a bit further into the adult world than most of Disney's live-action comedies do these days. One of the story's subplots is the identity of Ted's real father, who turns out to be none other than Thunder Jack (don't worry, this is all revealed not too far into the picture), which leads to Ted being shocked that his biological father was a white man. While this section of Snow Dogs will most likely fly over the kids' heads, adults should be pleased the subject is treated with at least some semi-seriousness. This situation, along with Ted's romance with the tavern owner and just a little goofiness for the dogs to perform, comprises the 10% of the film dedicated to keeping adults happy. The other 90% is filled with Cuba Gooding Jr. screaming about the cold weather, the dogs playing mischevious tricks on their new owner, and director Brian Levant giving us a tour of all the eccentric characters inhabiting Tolketna (does no one in this own have good teeth?). Despite the thematic elements and a strange sense of humor (one odd scene begins with Ted being chased by a bear and ends with him falling through thin ice...and this is all supposed to be funny), Snow Dogs is a pure-bred movie for  kids, designed to keep them entertained and to fill up theatre space on a barren Sunday afternoon.

Gooding's talent for allowing a bit of drama to blend in with a comedic character makes Ted a likeable fellow. But this is assuredly not one of the better performances in a career seemingly going downhill after Gooding's Jerry Maguire Oscar win. Needless to say, although Gooding gives us a good show in his first real family-oriented feature, he won't be winning any awards for this one. Coburn, who strangely resembles Willie Nelson, gives a wonderful performance as  the loveable old coot Thunder Jack --- quite a departure from his Oscar-winning turn as the abusive father in Affliction. He, like Gooding, won't see a little golden guy coming his way anytime soon, but Coburn fills the role and makes his character come alive, instead of sleepwalking his way through the film and seeing dollar signs in his eyes the entire time. Newcomer Bacalso is sweet and convincing as the love interest, but singer Sisqo (Get Over It) fails to consistently amuse as Ted's assistant. Kudos to director Brian Levant for capturing some very beautiful shots of the Alaskan wilderness, even though there were several moments when I could spot the use of a green-screen background (especially in the climactic sledding scene).

Cute. Fair. A decent time-killer. All are useful descriptions of Snow Dogs, another paint-by-numbers Disney comedy that betters itself above flicks like The Princess Diaries, mostly because of its impressive production design and those cute dogs.  Still, I shudder to think how much of Gary Paulsen's book "Winterdance" was left out of this goofy, family-friendly product.

My rating: ** (out of ****)

(Released by Walt Disney Pictures and rated PG for mild crude humor.)

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