Cross-breeding an old premise with some newfangled digital trickery, “The Shaggy Dog” reps the latest mutation of a franchise that Disney probably should have had spayed or neutered years ago. Trafficking in obvious anthropomorphic humor, with Tim Allen delivering a dubious master class in over-the-top canine behavior, this fur-fetched tale is bearable family viewing that will rake in moderate biz en route to the ancillary kennel.
A significant B.O. success in 1959, Disney’s first live-action comedy — filmed in black-and-white with Fred MacMurray, Jean Hagen and Tommy Kirk — already has spawned a sequel (1976’s “The Shaggy D.A.”) and a number of small-screen retreads. Technically, helmer Brian Robbins’ new version is the first bigscreen remake. While it boasts a few modern touches, particularly in its incorporation of animal experimentation as a plot device, the prevailing comic sensibility is earnestly old-fashioned and more than a little dog-eared.
Silly prologue introduces a beautiful 300-year-old bearded collie (played by credited canine Coal, last seen on USA’s “Monk”) who scientists, hoping to discover the secret of eternal life, have abducted from a Tibetan monastery. Heading the operation is the sinister Dr. Kozak (a tamped-down Robert Downey Jr.), who has publicly denied allegations that his firm, Grant & Strictland, has performed experiments on animals. (The interior of the laboratory, featuring an impressive CGI-rendered menagerie of caged mutants, tells another story.)
Rising star prosecutor Dave Douglas (Allen), is trying the case against schoolteacher Justin Forrester (Joshua Leonard), who stands accused of torching Grant & Strictland’s headquarters. On the homefront, Dave’s workaholism has left him little time for his loving wife Rebecca (“Sex and the City’s” Kristin Davis), eager-to-please son Josh (Spencer Breslin) and sullen teenage daughter Carly (Zena Grey).
Soon after a chance encounter with the purloined pooch, Dave begins to exhibit curious dog-like tendencies, i.e. scratching himself, shaking himself dry after a shower and involuntarily fetching thrown sticks. (Thankfully, the drinking-from-the-toilet gag appears to have ended up on the cutting-room floor.) Eventually he morphs into a full-blown collie, retaining all his thoughts and none of his motor skills, leaving him hard-pressed to explain himself to his family, much less figure out Kozak’s evil plan.
From there, the script (by husband-and-wife writing team the Wibberleys, Geoff Rodkey, Jack Amiel and Michael Begler) alternates between predictable and occasionally crass sight gags — the preponderance of jokes about butt-sniffing make this the most anally fixated family movie in a while. Though some might be amused initially by the sight of the actor lifting his leg over a urinal, or dropping to all fours to chase a cat, the physical shtick is mostly uninspired and borderline creepy. More effective are scenes of sentimental bonding between doggy Dave and his unsuspecting wife and kids.
Conveniently, Dave reverts back to human form in his sleep. The dog makes infinitely better company, although Allen’s jokey interior monologue, dubbed over Coal’s expressions and movements in the style of “Homeward Bound,” is more of a presence than it needs to be.
Dave’s affliction, of course, is fate’s roundabout way of teaching him to appreciate his family. If “The Shaggy Dog” never gets off the ground as a comedy, its occasional lump-in-the-throat moments are almost effortlessly achieved, thanks to strong work from Davis and Breslin in particular. Few will resist the image of the collie greeting Rebecca at their anniversary dinner with a bouquet of roses in his mouth.
Raucous courtroom scenes, in which Dave’s socially awkward transformation most often announces itself, are enlivened by Jane Curtin in a too-rare bigscreen appearance as an amusingly outraged judge. Danny Glover and Philip Baker Hall also appear briefly as Dave’s and Kozak’s bosses, respectively, while Craig Kilborn puts over an unfunny turn as an obnoxious neighbor.
Animatronic effects by Stan Winston Studios make persuasive use of a digital double whose actions were matched with those of the actual dog, while the lack of a truly satisfying metamorphosis sequence from Allen to Coal (or vice versa) is compensated for via some clever camerawork.
Musical choices are as obvious and on-the-nose as the humor: Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out?” is still as headache-inducing as it was six years ago.