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The Search for Santa Paws: Blu-ray + DVD Review

The Search for Santa Paws cover art -- click to buy Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack from Amazon.com The Search for Santa Paws
Movie, Blu-ray & DVD Details

Running Time: 96 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: Robert Vince / Writers: Robert Vince, Anna McRoberts

Cast: Madison Pettis (Willamina), Bonnie Somerville (Kate Huckle), Wendi McLendon-Covey (Ms. Stout), John Ducey (James Huckle), Danny Woodburn (Eli Elf), G. Hannelius (Janie), Patrika Darbo (Mrs. Claus), Chris Coppola (Gus), Pete Gardner (Franklin), Kaitlyn Maher (Quinn), Richard Riehle (Santa Claus), Bill Cobbs (Mr. Stewart), Jonathan Morgan Heit (Jimmy), Kathryn Kirkpatrick (Mrs. Gibson), Nicole Leduc (Meg), Michelle Creber (Taylor), Melody Choi (Mary) / Voice Cast: Diedrich Bader (Comet), Zachary Gordon (Paws), Richard Kind (Eddy the Elf Dog), Josh Flitter (T-Money), Mitchel Musso (Santa Paws), Jason Connery (Haggis), Christopher Massey (Rasta)

Songs: "Tinker Time", "Friends for Life", "Who Will Sing to Me?", "I Do Believe in Christmas", "Why Don't I Believe (Parts 1 & 2)", "It's That Wonderful Time of the Year", "Love Is In Your Heart"

1.78:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 5.1 DTS-HD (English); DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English); Both: Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish
Closed Captioned; Most Extras Captioned, Subtitled and Some Dubbed
Blu-ray + DVD Release Date: November 23, 2010 / Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50 & DVD-9)
Blue Keepcase in Embossed, Holographic Cardboard Slipcover
Also available in Standalone DVD ($29.99 SRP)

Buy DVD from Amazon.com Buy Blu-ray + DVD from Amazon.com

The makers of Disney's Buddies franchise of talking dog comedies have integrity. They knew that releasing another Christmas Buddies movie just one year after Santa Buddies would be too much. So instead of a sequel, we get a prequel in The Search for Santa Paws. There are no Buddies here, but there are some talking dogs and several of them voiced by Buddies film veterans. There is also no George Wendt as Santa Claus. As on Santa Baby 2, he has relinquished the role, demonstrating that he'll play Santa for anyone who asks, just not more than once.
Although, how he can be okay playing Father Christmas nearly every night from now until New Year's Day in Broadway's Elf musical is a mystery. Wendt's loss is actor Richard Riehle's gain; filling out the red suit here may be his biggest break since that "Jump to Conclusions" mat he came up with in the '90s.

The Search for Santa Paws is primarily a human movie and a musical drama at that. The easiest way to describe it would be to say that it's Annie meets Miracle on 34th Street. The use of singing orphans and the real Santa Claus working in a New York store draws obvious comparisons.

Surprisingly, there are a lot of plots and characters to follow here. It's as if longtime Buddies writers/producers Robert Vince and Anna McRoberts came up with several ideas (or decided to appropriate them from the two aforementioned films) that they wanted to incorporate instead of telling a single story.

The bad news: Santa Claus (Richard Riehle) has just found out his old friend has died. The awesome news: he's just gotten this stuffed "toy" dog out of it. Santa Paws, we never see. Santa Paws, what's that? Who's he?

The film opens at the North Pole where the immortal 1,600-year-old (I don't get the math either) Santa Claus (Riehle) gets news that his old friend, New York toy shop owner Mr. Hucklebuckle, has passed away. The news of his death comes with a present, a stuffed dog "toy" that Hucklebuckle had wanted Santa to have. Thanks to the magic of the great Christmas icicle, that stuffed dog comes to life as a puppy whom Santa befriends and names Paws.

Meanwhile in Manhattan, Hucklebuckle's lawyer Mr. Stewart (original Air Bud coach Bill Cobbs, appearing in two brief bookend scenes) explains to James Huckle ("Jonas" patriarch John Ducey) that his grandfather's shop will be his, provided that he and his wife Kate (Bonnie Somerville) can manage it profitably for one holiday season. That sounds kind of whack to the Huckles (who, yes, have dropped the "buckle"), self-important Angelenos who can't seem to conceive children. But they agree to it, temporarily moving into the unseen apartment above the shop.

The orphans come into play at a West 64th Street girls' foster home, evidently the worst foster home in the world. It is run by Ms. Stout (Wendi McLendon-Covey, "Reno 911!"), a woman far more evil than her surname suggests. She confiscates any toys the girls have and immediately brings them down to the basement to burn in the incinerator.
Film clip - "Friends for Life":
She also locks misbehaving kids down there (the basement, not the incinerator) overnight. Her whipping girl is Willamina ("Will" for short, played by The Game Plan's Madison Pettis), who is getting a bit long in the tooth for adoption. The newest ward is 6-year-old Quinn (Kaitlyn Maher), who takes a liking to Will and clearly will rival her in screentime.

The Miracle on 34th Street part of the equation is the result of Santa Claus and Paws (who is voiced by Diary of a Wimpy Kid's Zachary Gordon, but only if you believe in the Christmas spirit; otherwise, he just sounds like barks) taking a trip to New York City. Through his own fault (and his dog's recklessness), Santa gets sort of brushed by a taxi cab, which is enough to cause confusion and memory loss. Santa forgets who he is and what he's doing. To boot, Paws gets separated from him and an unscrupulous hobo (Chris Coppola) pockets Santa's sacred possessions.

Fortunately, disoriented Santa wanders into the Hucklebuckle toy shop and has just the look the Huckles need for their in-store Santa. He takes the job and single-handedly brings business in with his thoughtful ideas and golden demeanor.

Over the course of the film, childless L.A. couple Kate (Bonnie Somerville) and James Huckle (John Ducey) warm to New York City, minimally profitable toy stores, and the Christmas spirit. Hair-pulling, toy-snatching Ms. Stout (Wendi McLendon-Covey) is likely the world's worst foster parent.

The title The Search for Santa Paws is a bit of a misnomer. Paws doesn't become Santa Paws until the very end (when "Hannah Montana"'s Mitchel Musso briefly assumes the role). Before that, he isn't really the focus of anyone's pursuits. Nor is he the star of the movie as the cover indicates. Anyone expecting a level of canine involvement on par with the Buddies movies is likely to be disappointed. Whereas those are talking dog movies with some humans, this one is more like humans with the occasional talking dog. Sure, dogs are around, including a trio of ethnic New York street hounds and Eddy the Elf Dog (reprised by Richard Kind). They're just not too focal, taking more of a supporting role to those orphan girls, the new shopkeepers, and Santa, or "Bud", as he goes by in New York.

As the Buddies series' star attraction, the talking dog thing is the biggest reason for its general atrociousness, so I can't say I'm bummed to find Vince and McRoberts making something closer to the sweet original basketball drama that started it all. They don't come too close, though, relying on standard holiday family movie themes and conflict. Still, this might be the best effort from Keypix (formerly Keystone Entertainment) in a long time. Don't consider that an endorsement or recommendation. It was practically inconceivable that things could get worse than Santa Buddies. While Santa Paws is more tolerable, it doesn't offer anything that I would single out in a good way. But at least it takes a step away from those obnoxiously personified puppies and tries something different and relatively ambitious.

It is really only history that softens the blows of Santa Paws' failings. If this was the first of its kind, it'd be easier to be bothered by it. Some of the acting is weak, most understandably from the youngest of cast members. More polished performers are almost certain to have their vocals glaringly replaced in the musical numbers. The outdoor visuals of the North Pole are still awful and appear to be recycled directly from Santa Buddies. Unsurprisingly, we also get perhaps the least convincing New York City in film history; this was shot, like every other Keystone production, in Vancouver. The characters are typically one-note, ranging from sugary sweet to desperately-in-need-of-comeuppance. Perhaps the one exception is the accountant Huckle, who Ducey makes flawed but not hopelessly so. With the recent cancellation of "Jonas", he deserves to get better work.

Danny Woodburn (the little person from "Seinfeld", not "Sabrina") reprises his role of Eli, who is more head elf than medic but may be the only one who can help a critical Santa Claus defy death. Hucklebuckle's in-store Santa (Richard Riehle) doesn't know who he is, but Quinn (Kaitlyn Maher) is too adorable to care.

It's quite possible this review strikes you as putting way more thought into an apparent puppy picture like this. And in all fairness, I don't think that many families who buy this on Tuesday and watch it on Thanksgiving night will follow it up with a discussion of the merits of the effects, production design, acting, story, and song dubbing.
But if I don't give The Search for Santa Paws a detailed analysis, who will? The New York Times? Amazon customers? Mom blogs? It should be apparent that I've considered this movie with healthy amounts of skepticism and sarcasm. I recognize these qualities are at odds with the intended enjoyment of such a thing, but they are my only lines of defense for rationalizing watching and in some backwards way appreciating The Search for Santa Paws.

Like Santa Buddies and basically any new title Disney puts out these days, The Search for Santa Paws is available as a single-disc DVD and as a more expensive two-disc Blu-ray + DVD combo pack that includes the same DVD sold separately. As has been the case for nearly two years now, Disney only sent out the combo for review, which is okay by me, even if I could not be more pleased with the way standard DVD looks and sounds on my HDTV and home theater system.

VIDEO and AUDIO

Santa Paws looks practically perfect on DVD, its immaculate picture quality delighting in ways that its scenery alone wouldn't. The 1.78:1 presentation is mostly bright and warm but also conveys the dreary cold of Ms. Stout's foster home from hell. There really isn't a moment of disappointment that stems from the DVD transfer. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is as pleasing. You won't find any new holiday standards here, but the music, effects, and dialogue brim with vitality and are aptly dispersed throughout the channels.

Unsurprisingly, the Blu-ray also presents a solid image, with pleasing sharpness and detail throughout. Blacks appear somewhat grayish at times, but other than that, colors are appropriately bold and bright given the flat lighting. The picture doesn't exhibit any print or digital defects. It may not win any awards, but few will find this anything less than satisfying.

The Blu-ray's DTS-HD 5.1 track is pretty subdued. Most of the elements, such as the dialogue, are limited to the front speakers, though they all sound just as crisp as they should. The track opens up for the musical numbers which are clean but lacking scope. Effects are low-key save for the portions when the crystals work their magic. The audio delivers exactly what one expects, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

The beloved Buddies read "The Huckleberry Hero", an animated virtual pop-up book featuring T-Money, Rasta, and Haggis. You won't need Bing Crosby and John Denver anymore, now that you've got the original songs of "The Search for Santa Paws", complete with sing-along mode lyrics! No wonder tough orphan Will (Madison Pettis) is so happy.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Even the Special Editions of the Air Bud movies have been stingy with on-disc bonus features, so it's not surprising that this set isn't exactly like Christmas morning in a rich house. Still, there are a few nice touches provided.

The Buddies introduce "The Huckleberry Hero" (6:53), an animated pop-up book about T-Money, Rasta, and Haggis, Santa Paws' New York dog turned elves. Rosebud reads to us while B-Dawg regularly interrupts to insert unneeded commentary. More effort went into this than most things associated with the Buddies.

When activated, Sing-Along Mode has the lyrics of the diegetic and nondiegetic songs appear on screen as large player-generated subtitles that change from yellow to red with the singing. It's simple and probably not of interest to many, but why not offer this?

Nothing says "Deck the Halls" like the sight of Debby Ryan in fingerless black lace gloves like 1980s Madonna. No animals were harmed in the making of the film, but thanks to elf costumes and facial motion sensors, some sure were embarrassed. Like the film itself, the DVD's main menu believes in the value of computer-generated snow.

Next comes the obligatory Disney Channel-ready music video.
Watch Debby Ryan's "Deck the Halls" music video:

"Suite Life on Deck" star Debby Ryan provides a spirited rendition of "Deck the Halls" (2:23), which she performs with '80s Madonna-style fingerless lace gloves while partying out with her fellow teens.

Finally, there are a whopping twelve minutes of deleted scenes "Off the Cutting Room", which include the original pre-animation footage of dogs with motion sensors on their faces. There's nothing too remarkable here, but their inclusion reveals that Key Pix actually exhibits some discretion in their filmmaking. Who knew?!

Thankfully, no bonus features are kept exclusive to the Blu-ray Disc.

The DVD's main menu lets colored lights alternate and fake snow fall in an otherwise static scene of Paws outside Hucklebuckle Toys. The other menus are completely static but accompanied by instrumental score excerpts. The Blu-ray's menu selections are placed over colored archways that expand from left to right, each neighbored by a different dog. Like most Disney titles, the pop-up menu shrinks the film itself to a small window in the corner of the main menu. The loading screen features a circle of rotating Christmas lights.

The FastPlay DVD opens with promos for Bambi: Diamond Edition, Tangled, Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2, and Disney Movie Rewards. Post-feature/menu ads/"bonus features" include the Sprouse brothers' Blu-ray infomercial, a Disneyfile briefing and sneak peeks for Disney Blu-ray, Treasure Buddies (according to the insert, spring 2011, baby!), Prep & Landing on ABC, Fantasia and Fantasia 2000: 2-Movie Collection, The Lion King: Diamond Edition, Dumbo: 70th Anniversary Edition, Alice in Wonderland: Special 60th Anniversary Edition, The Incredibles Blu-ray, Cars 2, and ABC Family's 25 Day of Christmas. The Blu-ray holds all the same, only with some slight reordering.

The combo pack is housed in a standard slim blue keepcase and topped by an embossed, holography-enhanced slipcover. Booklets inside promote Blu-ray 3D, combo packs, new and upcoming Disney titles and other products (Butterball, anyone?). Your Disney Movie Rewards Code also gives you the cover-advertised lucrative opportunity to get a Santa Paws bracelet charm for $2.85 shipping and processing. Jingle all the way!

Dressed in his inconspicuous civilian garb, Santa Claus (Richard Riehle) and his no longer stuffed best friend Paws (voiced by Zachary Gordon) take a casual flight to New York City.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Search for Santa Paws is mistitled, misleadingly marketed, and largely a misfire, but coming as it does on the heels of many awful Buddies movies, it doesn't surprise or even offend that much. If you want another talking dog Christmas movie, I don't know that this fits the bill. If you want a good Christmas movie the whole family can enjoy, this isn't it. If you just want a new Disney Christmas movie you haven't already seen or bought, then you're in luck. And if you're worried that this signals the end of the Buddies franchise, relax; we should get an official announcement for Treasure Buddies any day now.

More on the Blu-ray + DVD Combo / Buy from Amazon.com / Buy on DVD

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Related Reviews:
Santa Buddies: The Legend of Santa Paws Snow Buddies Space Buddies Air Buddies
New: Santa Claus: The Movie (25th Anniversary) Elf (Ultimate Collector's Edition) Christmas Treats: T.V. Sets Toy Story 3
Newer: A Christmas Carol Mrs. Miracle Mickey Mouse Clubhouse: Numbers Roundup Ramona and Beezus
Newish: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Ultimate Edition) Phineas and Ferb: A Very Perry Christmas Have a Laugh! Volume 1
Special Editions: Air Bud Air Bud: Golden Receiver Air Bud: World Pup
Dogs: Marmaduke Beverly Hills Chihuahua Marley & Me Oliver & Company Lady and the Tramp
Christmas: The Santa Clause Fred Claus Four Christmases Jingle All the Way In Search of Santa

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The Cast of The Search for Santa Paws:
Madison Pettis: A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa Wish Gone Amiss The Game Plan
Bonnie Somerville: Labor Pains | John Ducey: Jonas: Rockin' the House | Richard Riehle: Balloon Farm
Zachary Gordon: Diary of a Wimpy Kid | Josh Flitter: License to Wed | Diedrich Bader: Surf's Up

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Reviewed November 21, 2010. Screencaps from standard DVD.