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The Shaggy D.A.: The Canine Candidate Edition DVD Review

"The Shaggy D.A." (1976) movie poster The Shaggy D.A.

Theatrical Release: December 17, 1976 / Running Time: 92 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: Robert Stevenson

Cast: Dean Jones (Wilby Daniels), Tim Conway (Tim), Suzanne Pleshette (Betty Daniels), Keenan Wynn ("Honest" John Slade), Jo Anne Worley (Katrinka Muggelberg), Dick Van Patten (Raymond), Shane Sinutko (Brian Daniels), Vic Tayback (Eddie Roschak), John Myhers (Admiral Brenner), Dick Bakalyan (Freddie), Warren Berlinger (Dip), Ronnie Schell (T.V. Director), Jonathan Daly (T.V. Interviewer), John Fiedler (Howie Clemmings), Hans Conried (Professor Whatley), Michael McGreevey (Sheldon), Richard O'Brien (Desk Sergeant), Dick Lane (Roller Rink Announcer), Benny Rubin (Waiter), Ruth Gillette (Song Chairman), Hank Jones (Policeman), Pat McCormick (The Bartender)


Seventeen years after The Shaggy Dog became one of Disney's biggest live action hits, the studio ushered into theaters a sequel, titled The Shaggy D.A., as its major Christmas 1976 release. With the follow-up coming smack in the middle of the Ron Miller era, it's not surprising that Wilby Daniels, the teen protagonist of the first film portrayed by Tommy Kirk, has
grown up and become Dean Jones, the studio's leading man of choice during post-Walt times, who was returning to Disney after a cinematically unproductive four-year hiatus. Wilby is now a lawyer and a family man, with a supportive wife (Suzanne Pleshette, serving as Jones' love interest for a third and final time) and a precocious pre-teen son (newcomer Shane Sinutko).

That three-person dynamic and a setting of Medfield, the fictional small town of many a live action Disney film, seem like a fairly standard starting place, so it's only natural that wacky mayhem ensues quickly and regularly. It does, as the Daniels find their home entirely cleaned out by burglars. When the burglars strike again, Wilby vows to take a stand, declaring his contention for the district attorney's office. Meanwhile, the two thieves -- named, of course, Freddie and Dip (and played by recurring henchman actor Dick Bakalyan and Warren Berlinger, star of Disney's "Kilroy" anthology installments) -- set their sights on bigger loot, namely a scarab ring at the town museum that's believed to possess some Borgia hoodoo and said to be priceless. When a supervising hood tells them their heist holds little value to them, Freddie takes to the streets and winds up getting pocket change from a polite yet goofy ice cream vendor named Tim (Tim Conway, then master of the understated character humor).

In "The Shaggy D.A.", Dean Jones and Suzanne Pleshette again play a married couple. This time, though, instead of a Great Dane and four dachshunds, they have a somewhat bratty son. Tim (Tim Conway) tries to show off Elwood's speech skills to a skeptical bar.

Naturally, the ring in question is the very item which was responsible for Wilby's transformations as a teen, as witnessed in The Shaggy Dog. That awkward period still haunts Wilby today, we're told as he finally reveals the canine chapter in his past to his wife Betty, in perhaps the most unintentionally amusing sequence of the film. It's only a matter of time before Tim, who conveniently is accompanied by a sheepdog named Elwood, reads the Latin phrase and inadvertently creates a hairy situation for Wilby. As happened years before, Wilby becomes Elwood, Elwood disappears, and those around the candidate (Betty, who is serving as her husband's campaign manager, and son Brian) are left fumbling to explain. Sure enough, the comedy again revolves heavily around this recurring phenomenon, which pays off to a mild degree.

Wilby's inopportune out-of-body experiences contrast with the upstanding citizen angle he appeals to voters with. Accordingly, appearances for a television interview program and at a local women's organization meeting go awry when Wilby gets white hair...all over his body and in remarkable amounts. Knowledge of his opponent's vulnerability gives the shady incumbent D.A. "Honest" John Slade (Keenan Wynn, basically playing Alonzo Hawk for the fourth time) an advantage, as do his relationships with low people in high places. When Slade gains possession of the ring, it's long spans of just voice work for Dean Jones, as Wilby remains cursed to parading around on all furry fours.

In the previous film, things got silly; not only does the Cold War spy plot seem bizarre today, but Wilby also got to drive a hot rod in dog form. The Shaggy D.A. tries to raise the bar in terms of wackiness. Not only does shaggy Wilby commandeer Tim's ice cream truck, but he tells off a pound employee (John Fiedler, the face behind Piglet's voice), triggering a massive pound break for his fellow captive canines (who voice their emotions, in a scene unmistakably inspired by Lady and the Tramp). And he even gets suited up and joins in the fun at a local roller-skating rink. None of that may sound too unusual next to puppets that come to life for dancing or college students who can knock over lampposts while tying their shoes, but for those not weaned on '70s Disney flicks, this is family-friendly comedy at its most ridiculous.

Keenan Wynn (Ed Wynn's son, believe it or not) gives another villainous performance as "Honest" John Slade, while Dick Van Patten (background) again fills the lackey quotient. In one of the few instances where he's not wearing a hat, Tim Conway reveals a vastly receding hairline.

As with most of the live action Disney films from this era, a little more intelligence and a little less formula definitely wouldn't have hindered the proceedings. Still, The Shaggy D.A. is enjoyable enough. As a comedy, there are more laughs to be had here than in the predecessor, but as a film, it's not quite as fulfilling. The presences of Dean Jones, Suzanne Pleshette,
and Tim Conway plus an ensemble of veteran character actors up the humor ante over the original's predominantly young leads (outside of Fred MacMurray). Still, the decision to go with a prolonged suspense climax and rely upon a series of sight gags rather than devoting more time to the compelling family/campaign elements of the storyline does hinder the whole and detours the film from excellence.

Surprisingly, though seventeen years of technological advances should have made for smoother man-to-dog transformations, the visual effects don't hold up as well as the original film's. The prior outing did employ a black and white palette (supposedly because Walt thought color would lend an eery realism) and opted for gradual change through quick cutaways. Here, it's as if the filmmakers are trying to dazzle audiences with the metamorphoses, but nothing is left to the imagination. Furthermore, the sight of grey and white hairs on Dean Jones' face is far more creepy than convincing or comedic.

Like the most celebrated of live action Disney films, the shortcomings and shortcuts of The Shaggy D.A. are almost universally dismissible in favor of a free-spirited good time. Perhaps it's nostalgia, if not for the simpler thrills of childhood viewings (this was my first time seeing the film) than for the off-the-wall, predictable, and good-natured stories that the Disney studio has long dabbled in. This film makes up for where it seems low on imagination with heart and time-tested principles of family comedy.

Buy The Shaggy D.A.: The Canine Candidate Edition DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English, French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English, French; Closed Captioned
Release Date: March 7, 2006
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
White Keepcase with Side Snaps

VIDEO and AUDIO

Many of the live action films in Disney's catalog have been subjected to a compromised presentation on DVD; they were filmed for widescreen exhibition, the DVDs reformat them for 4x3 television dimensions. To put this in perspective, Dean Jones starred in 10 live action Disney films from 1965 to 1977. On DVD, only three of those ten have upheld the films' theatrical aspect ratios.

For some reason, those that hit theaters in the 1970s are more likely to be treated to a faithful-to-intentions 16x9 widescreen transfer. There have been some casualties, but the statistics seem to suggest that Disney respects '70s live action fare more than the films released in the decades before or after (the present decade being an exception). Perhaps the studio assumes that productions of the Ron Miller era need all the help they can get, as they lack the appeal of being ushered in by Walt himself. Whatever the reasoning, in case you haven't already guessed it from the screencaps or the little table above, The Shaggy D.A. is one of the few lucky Dean Jones comedies to appear in its theatrical aspect ratio.

The visual effects in "The Shaggy D.A." range from creepy... ...to weird.

While the added resolution of a 16x9-enhanced presentation usually entails additional efforts to keep an old film looking snazzy, The Shaggy D.A.'s transfer falls short of digital perfection by a bit. There are minor signs of wear throughout, typically in tiny but frequent print intrusions. Sharpness is excellent, outside of a few layered effects shots which stand out. Though the film and its color palette give off an unquestionably 1970s vibe, hues are natural looking and consistent. In short, the visuals here are not terrific, but they're quite good.

In the audio department, Shaggy D.A. offers English, French, and Spanish soundtracks all in two-channel Dolby Mono. As you'd expect, the mix is heavy on dialogue, but also punctuated by a bouncy score and the occasional loopy sound effect. The elements feel limited and dated, probably more than they could be, but the basic aural proceedings feel no worse or different from most of the studio's comedies from this era.

The work of longtime makeup artist Robert Schiffer is spotlighted in the featurette "Putting on the Dog." In this still, he puts Dean Jones in his place. And by "his place", I mean "hair of Icelandic bear." Tim Conway makes for an amusing interview subject and commentator. "The Shaggy D.A."'s menus are modeled after the film's animated opening, sans Dean Jones' theme tune.

BONUS FEATURES and MENUS

Like its predecessor, The Shaggy D.A. is equipped with two featurettes and a feature-length audio commentary. "Putting on the Dog" (6:35) offers a sit-down with makeup artist Robert Schiffer, who spent the last 17 years of his 55-year-career at the Disney studio. He talks about the challenging process of transforming Dean Jones into a shaggy dog with prosthetics, large contact lens, and the hair of an Icelandic bear. While some may find this piece a bit dry, it's a nice tribute to Schiffer, who passed away last year having nearly 60 Disney films and TV movies to his credit.

"The Good, The Bad and The Funny" (9:25) is a general retrospective, limited by the fact that is comprised merely of film clips and interview footage with two cast members, Tim Conway and
Dick Van Patten. Conway clearly hasn't abandoned his flair for comedy, and the dry delivery of his sarcastic recollections serve this featurette very well. Separately, the two actors recall director Robert Stevenson, their various co-stars, memorable sequences from the movie (such as the complicated pie fight and the canine face punch Van Patten endured), and what it was like to work at Disney. While a bit short-sighted, this piece enables the priceless pleasure of catching up with (and seeing) actors who charmed audiences many years ago, making it a nice inclusion.

Finally, there is an audio commentary with Conway, Van Patten, and Jo Anne Worley. The design of the track immediately introduces some shortcomings: the three are recorded separately, erasing any opportunity for fluidity or camaraderie, and two of them have fairly small supporting roles in the film. Few efforts are made to edit the comments together; more often, the actors have reasonably long stretches of talking on their own and the floor bounces back and forth. Remarkably, even though there are three actors engaging in screen-specific observations, there is still a bit of dead air. Typically, Conway's remarks are quite amusing, Worley's overly animated tone becomes annoyingly strong, while Van Patten's contributions vary between obvious and uninteresting (many dealing with bit actors' other work). All things considered, this isn't the most satisfying commentary track, and not one ideal for converting those apathetic towards the format. Still, outside of the brief repeats and elaboration on what was stated in the featurette, there is still some worth to it. Fans of Disney's '70s live action fare should appreciate one of only four tracks bestowed upon the era's films.

The disc's supplements clearly suffer from the lack of input by stars Dean Jones and Suzanne Pleshette, who are repeatedly discussed, but disappointingly absent. While both cast members (and repeat Disney performers) remain somewhat active in causes and film projects, respectively, both have hooked up with the Disney studio this decade (Jones appeared on The Love Bug DVD; while Pleshette dubbed the antagonist of Spirited Away), making their no-shows here all the more frustrating. The pair was also missing from The Ugly Dachshund DVD (leaving the producers to pay tribute to Japanese actor Mako) in 2004, but efforts should have been taken during the 18-month delay of this disc to try to get some insight from the central couple. Furthermore, the commentary that is present would have been considerably enhanced by having the selected trio speaking together, even if it had to be done over conference call.

While the three supplements that are included easily lift The Shaggy D.A.'s DVD treatment above those of most live action Disney films, the menu here falls considerably short of the stellar two-disc Vault Disney platters once released not long ago. It even pales next to the pared-down single-disc "Special Edition" presentations of '70s flicks Escape to Witch Mountain, The Apple Dumpling Gang, and Return From Witch Mountain. Will we ever see those types of goodie-filled releases of vintage live action Disney films again? With most of the real classics already available, it doesn't seem too likely unless Buena Vista Home Entertainment expands their practice of DVD re-releases to live action Disney films, a class rarely revisited.

The usual Disney promos appear at the start of the disc, this batch previewing The Little Mermaid: Platinum Edition, Pixar's Cars, Chicken Little, and AirBuddies. The second page of the Sneak Peeks menu holds additional trailers for The Wild, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, and Brother Bear 2. Remarkably and somewhat mind-bafflingly, there is no trailer for The Shaggy Dog remake that this DVD is timed to. While it's unlikely that someone buying this DVD won't already know of the remake, such a missed opportunity would seem to merit a self-head-slapping.

The 16x9-enhanced menus employ imagery from the film's animated opening. Accordingly, they're accompanied by the opening portions of the score (including the Buena Vista logo music), though it is the lyric-less French version of the title song, and not the Dean Jones-crooned take that accompanies the original cut and its Spanish dub.

The Daniels adjust to their situation like few '70s families could. Dean Jones meets his match.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Shaggy D.A. is one of the better live action comedies Disney released in the 1970s, and its long-awaited DVD release is one of the more satisfying treatments prescribed to its class. While the movie is not an outstanding piece of cinema, the talented cast have fun with the silly transformation plot and ensure quite a good time for viewers of most ages, in the tradition of the Disney films of its era. The DVD scores points for its fairly strong widescreen transfer and three bonus features, which if not fantastic, are at least something, i.e. more than most of the studio's live action canon can boast. All things considered, The Shaggy D.A. is recommended even to highly selective collectors. There are better live action Disney films and better DVD releases, but as a complete package, this is one of the finest discs representing Disney's cinematic output of the '70s.

More on this DVD / Buy from Amazon.com

Related Reviews:
The Shaggy Dog (1959) The Shaggy Dog (2006) Whisper of the Heart Howl's Moving Castle
Dean Jones and Suzanne Pleshette: The Ugly Dachshund Blackbeard's Ghost
Dean Jones:
That Darn Cat! Snowball Express The Love Bug The Million Dollar Duck
Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo Monkeys, Go Home! The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit
Tim Conway: The World's Greatest Athlete The Apple Dumpling Gang The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again
Suzanne Pleshette: The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin The Lion King II: Simba's Pride Spirited Away
Dick Van Patten: The Strongest Man in the World Freaky Friday
Richard Bakalyan: Follow Me, Boys! Never a Dull Moment The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes Now You See Him, Now You Don't
Jo Anne Worley: Beauty and the Beast Beauty and the Beast: Belle's Magical World
John Fiedler: Piglet's Big Movie Kronk's New Groove Midnight Madness Rascal Growing Up with Winnie the Pooh: Friends Forever
Keenan Wynn: The Absent-Minded Professor Son of Flubber Herbie Rides Again
Ronnie Schell: The Devil and Max Devlin Phil of the Future: Gadgets & Gizmos
Hans Conried: Peter Pan Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier The Cat From Outer Space
Late-'70s Movies: No Deposit, No Return Candleshoe Pete's Dragon The Muppet Movie
Disney Goes to the Dogs: Lady and the Tramp: Platinum Edition Goof Troop: Volume 1 My Dog, The Thief Benji the Hunted

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Reviewed March 10, 2006.