I will be blunt: if you are neither a snot-nosed seven-year-old nor the proud parent of a snot-nosed seven-year-old, you have no reason to go see the new film “Snow Dogs.” As I walked into the mobbed movie theater last Monday, I felt the searing stares of amused children and confused parents burning the back of my neck. One little girl actually laughed at me.
Since the previously defined age parameters leave out most of the Yale Community, I want to thank those who have not turned the page. Let me now tell you why viewing “Snow Dogs” is such a particularly awful experience aside from that rude little girl. A good children’s film (view last summer’s “Shrek”) breaks the barrier of initial awkwardness with complex wit that fleshes out the apparently youthful images. “Snow Dogs” does not fall into this category; instead, it creates its own category, intensifying and making unbearable that “what the hell am I doing here” sensation. While it earnestly promotes family identity and love, “Snow Dogs” is so clunky, slow, unfunny, repetitive, awkward, and boring (pick an adjective, please) that it redefines tedium.
Oscar winner Cuba Gooding, Jr. (are you laughing yet?) plays Miami dentist Ted Brooks, a successful entrepreneur with his face plastered on buses all over the city. Although his professional life flourishes, Ted’s personal falls apart when he receives a letter informing him of the death of one Lucy Watkins. Ted’s mother reveals to him that he’s actually adopted, and that Ms. Watkins was his biological mother.
Stunned and confused, Ted heads to Lucy’s small hometown of Tukeltna, Alaska to learn about his roots. Upon arrival, he discovers he is the inheritor of Lucy’s vicious, unruly team of sled dogs. Ted hates dogs, but he learns to love them (they are just so furry!) during his time in Tukeltna — a time spent attempting to connect and learn from his crusty, negligent biological father, inexplicably named Thunder Jack (another Oscar-winner, James Coburn). He also romances the only woman who lives in the town (since the filmmakers were too lazy to hire any more actresses), and at the same time comes to know his sled-dog champion within.
It’s hard to bash such an innocuous little movie. The film handles the theme of adoption with understanding. And ultimately, you can’t really argue with the film’s message to children that love, and not biology, define families.
Putting aside these trite thematic successes, “Snow Dogs” is an absolute mess of a picture. The director repeatedly uses the same tired, generic jokes: jabs at dentists, small towns, slippery ice, and dogs that are smarter than humans pop up throughout the film. It does not help that these clich*s were never that funny in the first place. In one exchange, repetition is taken to new heights of insipidness: Ted yells at his obnoxious father: “Your head is too big!” To which Thunder Jack replies: “No, your head is too big!” Ted’s shocking rejoinder: “No, your head is too big!” The repetition is meant to demonstrate the father-son mental connection, but instead made me want to vomit everywhere, especially on the kids.
The dialogue is bad, but nothing is more painful than watching Cuba Gooding Jr. give one of the worst on-screen performances in recent memory. What the hell happened, Cuba? It seems like just yesterday he was yelling “Show me the money!” to Tom Cruise and winning awards in the process. In this film he is reduced to fending off huskies in Alaska. His main problem in “Snow Dogs,” as well as in the superior summer comedy “Rat Race,” is his inability to pull off physical comedy. Whether he’s being shot across the ice by a propeller plane or scrambling up a tree to escape a vicious dog, every one of his actions is exaggerated and overdone.
Ultimately, we all know this film is not really about the humans. It is about the dogs. And here is where its failure is the most surprising and unfortunate. I am a huge dog person; I watched “Lassie” everyday as a kid, and the “Beethoven” movies are still solid entertainment today. The reason these movies succeeded is because they focused on the damn dog! Beethoven possessed far more personality than any of the humans, and Lassie saved that stupid little kid Timmy’s life every freaking day! “Snow Dogs” might as well have been called “Snow Cuba Gooding Jr. Reconciles with His Long Lost Family,” because the dogs are undefined, anonymous, and insignificant. The one time the dogs take center stage — during a dream sequence in which they actually talk and crack jokes — events quickly degenerate into an excuse for a disturbing Michael Bolton cameo.
Without this requisite doggie-personality, “Snow Dogs” is a bore for adults and children. Despite a few “Ew!” and “Ah!” noises, the kids squirmed in their seats, picked their noses, and chucked gummy bears at each other. And, for the first time ever, I realized I wanted to be a father.