I’m well aware that when I recommend a live action film that has talking animals in it people question my judgement, and on occasion question whether a brief spell in a psychiatric ward might help as yes, I do have a bizarre fondness for the genre and have made excuses for some of the dodgiest examples like Show Dogs and The Karate Dog. But Disney’s 1959 comedy is an example of a genuinely charming film, one that’s rather silly for sure but also extremely endearing.
Whenever I watch a film that I plan to review I have a word document open with two columns on it, highlights and lowlights, and this is a rare example where the latter didn’t have a single entry. Okay, you have to be a little forgiving of the special effects, this isn’t a film which has an animalistic transformation that’s at the level of An American Werewolf In London (or hell, even An American Werewolf In Paris) and some of the puppetry is a bit obvious, but that only made the film more lovable for me.
Otherwise it’s pretty much a delight from the very first second, which involves a cute stop motion animation of a dog as the credits roll, and then we meet the Daniels family, whose patriarch Wilson (Fred MacMurray) is a bit of a dick as he hates dogs. It’s perhaps understandable given that he’s a very proud mailman, but his sons Wilby (Tommy Kirk) and Moochie (Kevin Corcoran, who after a career as a child actor went on to be a producer on The Shield and Sons Of Anarchy, amusingly enough) clearly want a canine pet, and that’s only accentuated when he bans them from messing about in the basement after they build a rocket which destroys half the house.
That event’s never mentioned again, possibly because it was absolutely normal for teenagers to build rockets that could shoot off in to space in the nineteen fifties, that or it’s due to the way the writers Bill Walsh and Lillie Hayward are happy to throw in a great deal of ridiculousness in to proceedings and for once it’s definitely a case of the more insane the film is the merrier it gets. So after a trip to a museum where Wilson’s son Wilby learns all about a magic ring from Professor Plumcutt (Cecil Kellaway) that allows its wearer to shapeshift, soon he’s transformed in to a dog, not that it seems to bother the good professor who casually mentions “The very first time I saw you I said to myself that boy’s a potential shapeshifter”, but afterwards seems bored by the fact and gets rid of poor old Wilby.
After a lot of fun bodyswap style humour as Wilby tries to cope with being a dog, often doing human things like brushing his teeth and putting on his pyjamas without a seconds thought, Wilson spots him and tries to murder him, if mishandled this could have been quite a brutal moment but thankfully they just about get away with it and it adds a hint of peril to the film. Then Wilby transforms back in to a human (much to the dismay of his brother Moochie, who spends most of the film calling Wilby “Boy” despite knowing it’s his brother), but only ten minutes later he’s all kinds of hairy again thankfully.
Around the fifty minute point the film stops being just about daft doggy antics as it’s revealed that Wilby’s new next door neighbour is a spy who plans to steal an important device from the missile factory that he works for. America would surely be doomed if he does (or mildly annoyed, anyhow) but luckily for all Wilson in dog form overhears the neighbour’s evil plan and decides to thwart him. This involves getting his Dad Wilson on board, who seems to accept that his son is a dog surprisingly quickly, telling a policeman “Don’t be ridiculous, my son isn’t any werewolf, he’s just a big baggy stupid looking shaggy dog”, and an action packed finale then takes place.
It’s full of old fashioned, simple charm for sure, but the script is filled with beautifully absurd moments too. Most of them revolve around Wilby in dog form but there’s laughs to be had from Wilson’s hatred of dogs that goes to such extremes that he even hates a dog awarded a medal for saving a baby from a burning building, while one of the policeman is clearly having a slow mental breakdown as he keeps on seeing Wilby in dog form doing things which a dog normally wouldn’t.
Pulling off such a daft family friendly movie so effectively isn’t easy, as the 1976 sequel The Shaggy DA proves (a review of which will be up on the site in the near future), but it benefits from having an incredibly game cast who throw their all in to the film no matter how silly it gets. The child actors are all superb too (with Tommy Kirk deserving a great deal of acclaim) and it contains a collection of well defined comic characters who are a pleasure to spend time with, even if our shaggy friend is definitely the real star of the picture.