A featherweight throwback to the willy-nilly silliness of Disney comedies produced in the 1970s, "Snow Dogs" should benefit from lack of similar family fare on current megaplex bills; decent opening-weekend grosses may snowball into a tidy sum for the Mouse House.

A featherweight throwback to the willy-nilly silliness of Disney comedies produced in the 1970s, “Snow Dogs” should benefit from lack of similar family fare on current megaplex bills; decent opening-weekend grosses may snowball into a tidy sum for the Mouse House. Small children will be amused by the frenetic antics of Cuba Gooding Jr. as a city slicker who’s improbably transported to the Alaskan wilds and compelled to grasp the finer points of dog-sled racing. Grownups, however, will be far less enchanted.

Gooding plays Ted Brooks, a successful dentist with a string of profit-churning clinics in Miami. Amelia (Nichelle Nichols), his proud widowed mother, has never had the nerve to tell him that he was adopted. But Ted learns thetruth on his own when he’s told his real mother recently died in the remote Alaskan hamlet of Tolketna.

So Ted heads north to settle hismother’s estate and, if possible, learn something about his roots. Once in Tolketna, he’s attracted to Barb (Joanna Bacalso), a beautiful tavern owner, and intimidated by Thunder Jack (James Coburn), a crusty, cranky dog-racing champ. Jack wants to buy the entire team of sled dogs raised and trained by Ted’s mom. At first, Ted is sorely tempted to make a quick sale, since he’s unable to cope with Demon, leader of the pack, and the other hard-to-handle canines.

But Ted changes his mind and decides to stick around when he learns that Jack, although conspicuously white, is his biological father.

“Snow Dogs” plays the race card very carefully, and mostly for easy laughs. At one point, Amelia notes that her adopted son’s Caucasian background would explain “why you’re so crazy about that Michael Bolton.” A nice touch: Bolton himself pops up in a dream sequence for some good-sport self-parody.

Coburn makes it very clear in his effectively understated performance that there’s no racist motive behind Jack’s gruff refusal to accept Ted as his offspring, or his extreme reluctance to talk about Ted’s mother. He’ssimplytoo set in his ways — and, perhaps, too regretful about choices made and opportunities missed — to greet Ted with open arms.

But, of course, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, even when covered with snow. Ted doggedly attempts to master the art of mushing, despite the lack of cooperation from Demon and his four-legged teammates.

Practice doesn’t exactly make perfect, but Ted learns enough to lend a hand when Jack is lost during the Arctic Challenge, a cross-country competition said to be the most grueling dog-sled race “next to the Iditarod.”

Speaking of the Iditarod: No fewer than five scriptwriters are credited with adapting James Paulsen’s 1994 nonfiction book “Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod.” It’s hard to shake the suspicion that each scribe in turn made the scenario a little less fact-based, a little more generic, while changing names, smoothing edges and pushing material ever closer toward the lowest common denominator.

Gooding flails his arms, bugs his eyes and tumbles through pratfallsmore than he has to, pitching his performance toward the pic’s target audience (i.e., small children whose parents won’t object to a few jokes about doggie wee-wee).

Director Brian Levant (“The Flintstones,” “Jingle All the Way”) fails to finesse the pacing — “Snow Dogs” seems ready to end at least twice before it actually does — and doesn’t do much with throwaway bits that may have originally been intended as more substantial running gags. Chief among the latter: A couple of appearances by Jean-Michel Pare as a vainglorious, commercially endorsed dog-racer.

On the other hand, Levant wisely underplays the amusing f/x trickery that allows Demon and the other sled dogs to occasionally express themselves (to one another, not to humans) with winks, grins, raised eyebrows and fluttering eyelashes. In the aforementioned dream sequence, the sled dogs relax in folding chairs on a sandy beach while conversing with Ted. (Jim Belushi gets billing as Demon’s voice, while Jim Henson’s Creature Shop is credited with constructing the animatronic version of the dog.) Throughout rest of “Snow Dogs,” though, title characters are rendered with appreciably more realism.

Snow Dogs

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Walt Disney Pictures presentation of a Jordan Kerner production in association with Galapagos Productions. Produced by Jordan Kerner. Executive producers, Christine Whitaker, Casey Grant. Directed by Brian Levant. Screenplay, Jim Kouf, Tommy Swerdlow, Michael Goldberg, Mark Gibson and Philip Halprin, suggested by the book "Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod" by Gary Paulsen.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Thomas Ackerman; editor, Roger Bondelli; production designer, Stephen Lineweaver; art director, Doug Byggdin; set decorator, Elizabeth Wilcox; costume designer, Monique Prudhomme; music, John Debney; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Rob Young; visual effects supervisor, Tim Landry; assistant director, Benjamin Rosenberg; casting, Amanda Mackey Johnson, Cathy Sandrich Gelfond. Reviewed at Edwards Grand Palace Stadium 24, Houston, Jan. 5, 2002. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Ted Brooks - Cuba Gooding Jr.
Thunder Jack - James Coburn
Dr. Rupert Brooks - Sisqo
Amelia Brooks - Nichelle Nichols
George - M. Emmet Walsh
Peter Yellowbear - Graham Greene
Ernie - Brian Doyle-Murray
Barb - Joanna Bacalso
Olivier - Jean-Michel Pare
Michael Bolton - Himself

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