Remember those live-action Disney features in which Dean Jones or, reaching back earlier, Fred MacMurray would play a hapless grown-up at odds with kids, animals and/or enchanted cars? Good, bad or indifferent, those movies were, for children of a certain age, as sweet, gooey and disposable as ice-cream sandwiches. Every generation is entitled to its dopey, sticky junk and, deep into the winter blahs, they don't get stickier or dopier than "Snow Dogs."
Cuba Gooding Jr. is the Dean Jones figure in this lightweight, ungainly farce in which he plays Dr. Ted Brooks, serene ruler over a Miami chain of dental clinics. One day, he is served with legal papers requiring that he fly to the tiny town of Tolketna, Alaska, to collect his dead mother's inheritance. Obviously, this is a mistake, since Ted's widowed mother Amelia (Nichelle Nichols) is standing right in front of him. Well, no, says Amelia, who hadn't found the nerve before now to tell Ted that he'd been adopted. So Ted flies off to the middle of nowhere to see where he really comes from. And what he finds is a village of eccentrics and grotesques mimeographed from a rejected episode of "Northern Exposure." The most intimidating of all is a prickly, sour piece of work named Thunder Jack (James Coburn), who wants Ted to sell him a rambunctious team of sled dogs that make up part of Ted's late mother's legacy. An improbably gorgeous tavern owner named Barb (Joanna Bacalso) warns Ted not to do anything rash.
Ted, for his part, still wonders why his mother gave him up for adoption and who his father was.
Meanwhile, Ted is reluctantly struggling to bond with his husky dogs who, through digital magic, are shown winking, nodding and smirking at their greenhorn proprietor as he tries to reorganize them into a sled team. Barb and Jack offer helpful hints on such dog craft while withholding secrets about Ted's roots. No revelations will come in this space, beyond saying that a multiculturalism unimaginable in the mid-20th century era of Disney entertainment is one of the things with which this movie is both nimble and boisterously oblivious.
These and other throwaway plot lines are tugged, ripped and snarled with dogged artlessness by director Brian Levant, whose resume includes such live-action cartoons as "The Flintstones." Given that this is one of those screenplays with five writers (and who knows how many uncredited others), one supposes that "Snow Dogs" could have been an even bigger mess than it is. Cold comfort, indeed, as you'd expect someone to say in this context.
Of Gooding's presence here, you'd also expect smart-alecks of all persuasions to shout "Show me the money, indeed!" at the screen. Still, he's as game and as cuddly as the project requires, rolling and tumbling through the frosty landscapes, making funny faces at dogs and bears. Coburn, meanwhile, eases one's passage through this thick, arduous terrain with a lively, laid-back performance. He's a crafty old pro who wears the artificially grizzled skin of his character with accommodating grace.
MPAA rating: PG, for mild, crude humor. Times guidelines: one risque throwaway line and a few scatological references.
Cuba Gooding Jr....Ted
James Coburn...Thunder Jack
Sisqo...Dr. Rupert Brooks
M. Emmet Walsh...George
Walt Disney Pictures presents a Jordan Kerner production, in association with Galapagos Productions, released by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution. Director Brian Levant. Producer Jordan Kerner. Executive producers Christine Whitaker, Casey Grant. Screenplay by Jim Kouf and Tommy Swerdlow & Michael Goldberg and Mark Gibson & Philip Halprin. Cinematographer Thomas Ackerman. Editor Roger Bondelli. Costume designer Monique Prudhomme. Music John Debney. Production designer Stephen Lineweaver. Art director Doug Byggdin. Set decorator Elizabeth Wilcox. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.