|Shaggy Dog, The (The Wild & Woolly Edition)|
|Written by Dan Macintosh|
|Tuesday, 07 March 2006|
It’s obvious from the film’s very first scenes, which are chockfull of all of those great old classic American cars lining a stereotypical suburban street, that this story takes place in the innocent ‘50s. In fact – speaking of the ‘50s -- one of this DVD’s bonus features points out that our little movie out-grossed “Ben Hur,” k-ching-ing it to the biggest money-making film of 1959. It may have a cutely dated look about it, but this silly plot -- about a boy who switches back and forth between being a dog and a young human -- is as funny today as was back in those simpler days of years gone by.
Our puppy love story centers on Wilby Daniels, played here by Tommy Kirk, who is a smart young lad with far more brains than social skills. So advanced is he that the film opens with Wilby getting into trouble after developing a missile interception device in the family’s home cellar. This amateur military industrial act is viewed as the last straw by his father, Wilson Daniels (MacMurray), after which he orders Wilby to clean all the scientific materials out of the Wilson house.
The crashing trajectory of Wilby’s teen years begins to spiral downward even faster when a magic ring from a local museum accidentally comes home with him in his trouser cuff. After innocently repeating this jewel’s Latin inscription, its spell begins to turn him intermittently into a sheepdog.
The dog who Wilby temporarily becomes Wilby’s temporary body is a loveable sheepdog who that belongs to new neighbor Franceska Andrassy (Roberta Shore). Franceska is introduced to viewers as a cosmopolitan teen who speaks seven different languages, and recently studied art in France. Soon after her arrival, Franceska attracts the immediate affections of Buzz Miller (Tim Considine), supposedly Wilby’s best friend. Buzz quickly drops his steady girl, Allison D’Allessio (played by Annette Funicello), in hopes of winning the heart of this pretty new foreign property.
Buzz and Wilby’s relationship is one of this film’s weakest plot devices. Each boy refers to the other as his best friend, yet nothing they say or do leads us to believe that they truly like each other, let alone that they are best friends. It is, however, believable that they’re rivals, as each one tries like the Dickens to be the first one to win the heart of the new girl in town.
MacMurray’s presence leaves the most lasting impression here. The film’s opening narration introduces him as: “A man who loved people, but hated dogs.” It’s easy to take such a professional actor for granted. But his character actually tests our willingness to immediately like him, due to the fact that he’s also a diehard dog hater. Furthermore, the mere mention of pooches causes him to instinctively begin scratching himself, as if he’d suddenly broken out in a severe rash. Nine times out of 10, movie characters who are at war with animals are bad guys. But MacMurray’s Wilson Daniels is a postman, and postal workers have traditionally disliked the canine realm. Wilson is just an extreme example of this organized mail service vs. Spot animosity. Freeda (Jean Hagen), Wilson’s wife, speculates that dogs hate postmen so much because they instinctively know that these mail deliverers carry with them bad news – such as bills – whenever they visit our homes. But in Wilson’s case, it’s mainly a one-sided hatred toward all dogs.
It turns out that Franceska’s father, Dr. Mikhail Andrassy (Alexander Scourby), is actually a spy. Wilby overhears this shocking news while inhabiting the dog’s body at Franceska’s house. Wilby tells Moochie (Kevin Corcoran), his younger brother, about these plans, and Moochie then dutifully shares them with his dad. But instead of just laughing at the little boy, Wilson instinctively believes his son; he trusts him so completely, in fact, he takes the young lad to the government authorities, where they both explain what’s been going on in their otherwise quiet neighborhood. This is also where MacMurray’s at his funniest, because he adamantly explains his son’s shape-shifting experiences, even though detailing these wild happenings makes him look and sound like an utter fool.
We should not forget how good the dog is here. The breed of dog chosen is that big, fluffy variety, which -- when standing on its hind legs -- looks nearly human. This dog/actor does some amazing stunts too, ranging from walking up a ladder to appearing as if he’s driving a car.
In addition to the smart pet tricks, there’s also plenty of great dialogue here. Much of it comes from the lips of the cast’s youngster Moochie. Moochie, you see, loves the dog and would be much happier if his older brother turned into a dog for good. He even says to Wilby at one point, “Do you think pop will let me keep ya, Wilby?” Later he worries, “I hope pop won’t shoot ya.” Wilson does get out his gun at one point, to chase after the dog – of course, this is before he knows that it is actually his son under all that fur. Even so, he doesn’t hate dogs enough to pull the trigger on this fluffy canine, although he has ample opportunity to do so.
James Westerfield, in the supporting role of Officer Hanson, also has few memorable scenes here. In fact, had this not been a Disney film, he might well have been hitting the sauce pretty heavily before film’s end. He’s the one who more often than not encounters Wilby’s dog days, all the while on official duty. This severely tests his grasp of reality. He doesn’t say much, but his double-take facial expressions are simply priceless.
The special features are also worth a look -- especially the one that features the film’s child actors who are, naturally, all grown up now. This particular segment offers plenty of insight into the making of the film. The tribute to MacMurray is also sweet, because this film simply wouldn’t have worked without him.
From a technical standpoint, the sound and picture here is excellent. Even though this package comes with a colorized version, the black and white original is 10 minutes longer and should be your first viewing choice when watching it for the first time.
Disney may have remade this film recently -- which is something that might happen to almost every successful original film eventually -- but it would be impossible to make a movie any better than “The Shaggy Dog.” This is a film that will make dog lovers out of almost anybody, the same way it changed the heart of MacMurray’s postman character.