[Screen It]

(2002) (Cuba Gooding, Jr. James Coburn) (PG)

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Comedy: A Miami dentist tries to learn the truth about his origins when he discovers that he's adopted and has inherited his late mother's team of Alaskan sled dogs.
Ted Brooks (CUBA GOODING, JR.) is a successful Miami dentist who's living the good life. In practice with his cousin, Rupert (SISQO), and doted over by his widowed mother, Amelia (NICHELLE NICHOLS), Ted has it all, yet feels like he's missing something. Then, out of the blue, he learns that he was adopted upon receiving notice that his biological mother has passed away and left him an inheritance.

Accordingly, he sets out for the remote town of Tolketna, Alaska, known as the starting and finishing point for the Arctic Challenge dogsled race. There, he meets George Murphy (M. EMMET WALSH), the executor of his late mother's estate; Barb (JOANNA BACALSO), the local barmaid who takes a shining to this stranger; and locals Peter Yellowbear (GRAHAM GREENE) and Ernie (BRIAN DOYLE-MURRAY), all of whom are a bit cautious around Thunder Jack (JAMES COBURN), a gruff old mountain man.

Hoping to take an inventory of what he's inherited and then get out of the cold and snowy environs for his more familiar beach home, Ted discovers that among the various things his mother left him is a complete sled dog team, led by the alpha male, Demon. Thunder Jack offers to buy them from Ted, but Barb convinces the city slicker that they're worth more than the offer.

Prepared to leave, Ted gets more interesting news when he then learns that Thunder Jack is actually his biological father, although the gruff old man doesn't want to talk about any of that. Determined to learn the secret past of his origins, Ted decides to stick around until he's told the truth. In the meantime, he sets out to learn the sport of dog sledding. Yet, when he discovers that some of the dogs are just as headstrong and unwilling to cooperate as Thunder Jack, Ted does what he can to convince all of them to give him what he wants.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
Of the various maladies currently afflicting contemporary cinema, few are as perplexing as why filmmakers and studios can turn out so many good to great animated kids films (both hand drawn and computer animated), but can't do the same when it comes to live action ones.

While various entries in the latter category often entertain kids and become big financial hits - mostly due to a shortage of competing products targeted at that demographic - rarely do they match their financial success with artistic achievement, let alone entertain adults as much as their juvenile charges.

The latest example of that is "Snow Dogs," Disney's most recent stab at live action fare. While it may appease certain less discerning youngsters - what with its cute dogs, exaggerated acting and slapstick style pratfalls - it's an artistic disappointment that's sure to test the patience of even those adults who will appreciate it simply for being an innocuous enough film that most of the family can see together.

About as formulaic as they come - I can only imagine that the screenplay penned by the five, count 'em, five screenwriters is filled with cinematic equations rather than dialogue, fleshed out characters or a well thought out plot - the film is yet another fish out of water comedy.

The unfortunate sap is played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. ("Rat Race," "Pearl Harbor") whose once promising - and Oscar winning - career is quickly being flushed down the toilet. He portrays a Miami dentist who inherits a team of Alaskan sled dogs from the biological mother he previously didn't know existed.

The standard big city guy in small town America plot and hijinks quickly set in, followed by the learning curve of fitting in and dealing with the dogs, the requisite opposite sex love interest, and what's supposed to be deep and profound character growth, all tidily packaged together.

The problem is that the scribe squad of Jim Kouf ("Rush Hour," "Stakeout") and Tommy Swerdlow & Michael Goldberg ("Little Giants," "Cool Runnings") and Mark Gibson & Philip Halprin ("The In Crowd") not only drag out every tired and predictable convention and cliché typically present in this sort of film, but also do so without any real sort of vigor or imagination.

You can forget about the talking dog angle - an unfortunate expectation based on the completely misleading TV ad campaign that shows the dogs sunning themselves on lounge chairs and conversing, a point that only occurs once in a hallucination-based scene.

The same holds true for much of anything resembling intelligent or effective humor - if you're older than 10 or so - or realistic characters. How odd that Hollywood can make us care about animated monsters, ogres and toys, but can't do the same with live characters who strangely never come off as human.

Of course, it helps that the animated characters don't overact or deliver wooden performances, as do some of their human counterparts here. Granted, kids aren't looking for Oscar-caliber material and do seem to enjoy exaggerated acting, especially when it's accompanied by physical or scatological humor. While the film thankfully mostly avoids the latter, it delivers plenty of the former, but there are only so many ways one can show Gooding slipping, sliding, falling and/or being dragged behind a sled before it becomes monotonous.

In fact, one gets the sense that the five scribes and director Brian Levant ("Jingle All the Way," "The Flintstones") had a quota of such pratfalls to meet, or simply enjoy watching such slapstick themselves, as more attention is paid to all of that than in fashioning a smart and well-made film that kids and adults alike could equally enjoy.

Gooding certainly doesn't hold anything back in his over the top, comedic performance, but none of it feels genuine either in spirit or emotion, and his more "profound" moments of questioning who he is and what he does feel nothing short of contrived, predictable and trite.

Joining him in the "What was he thinking for signing on with this film" grouping is veteran actor James Coburn ("Monsters, Inc." "Affliction"). Although he brings a great deal more to his character than is written on paper - or hypothesized in one of the film's many equations - thanks to that well known, gravely voice, the talented performer is pretty much wasted in the role.

The same holds true for M. Emmet Walsh ("My Best Friend's Wedding," "Blood Simple") as the town's jack-of-all-trades, and both Graham Greene ("The Green Mile," "Dances With Wolves") and Brian Doyle-Murray ("Groundhog Day," "JFK") as two locals who barely get any screen time.

Joanna Bacalso ("Bedazzled," "Dude, Where's My Car?") appears as the requisite gorgeous babe-cum-potential romantic interest, but she fails to ignite any sort of chemistry or sparks with Gooding, but does inexplicably show up wherever his character happens to be (the film seems to have no problem in sporting convenient plot developments). Nichelle Nichols (the original "Star Trek" TV series and movies) is painfully bad as the protagonist's worried mother - no thanks to a poorly written part - while singer turned actor Sisqó ("Get Over It") isn't around long enough to do anything with his role.

The real stars of the film, of course, are the Siberian Huskies and one Border collie who play the titular characters. While they're not given the "Babe/Dr. Dolittle" talking treatment - beyond that one hallucinatory scene - their personalities are occasionally injected via the puppetry work of Jim Henson's Creature Shop that create the winking, raised eyebrows and the like.

Kids will obviously enjoy all of that and the moments when they collectively decide to show Gooding's character who the master really is, but some may be disappointed that all but two of them - Demon the alpha male and Nana the Collie -- pretty much blend together.

Likewise, some parents may be disappointed that despite the family-oriented package, the film gets weirder and worse as it progresses, including topics of one-night stands, shapely women in bikinis, and a "made you think" sexual tease that's completely inappropriate for this sort of picture (where we're briefly led to believe Gooding's in bed with a woman from the night before who we then see is really just a dog - in a canine, and not overall attractiveness sense).

Of course, considering that this is the same studio that unleashed "Bubble Boy" onto unsuspecting viewers in 2001, that really shouldn't come as much of a surprise. After that film, this one and past efforts such as "Inspector Gadget," one has to wonder who's green-lighting the live action kids films at Disney, and/or why the folks at Pixar - the collaborative studio responsible for "Monsters, Inc." and the "Toy Story" films - aren't given all such kids films to produce.

While I don't know what they might have done with a story like this - particularly if they had to do it with real humans in a live action setting - I have little doubt that it would have been far better than what's offered here. Although "Snow Dogs" earns a few points simply for managing to entertain kids when not many films are available for them to see, it's nowhere in the same league in any respect as any of its computer animated counterparts. The film rates as just a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed January 15, 2002 / Posted January 18, 2002

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