- The Washington Times - Friday, January 18, 2002

To illustrate how meaningless certain distinctions can be, the producers of "Snow Dogs," a painfully spasmodic fish-out-of-water farce from the Disney company, could boast of casting two Academy Award winners as its co-stars. Namely Cuba Gooding Jr. and James Coburn, who won Oscars for best supporting actor in recent years.
Not that the new movie ever suggests a flattering follow-up for either actor, but it is a sorry little entertainment that could trade on Oscar pedigrees.
The pretext is a tad far-fetched and never demonstrates enough slapstick prowess or human-interest savvy to compensate for avalanching stupidities. Mr. Gooding's Ted Brooks is a thriving Miami dentist, the beaming proprietor of a four-office franchise called Hot Smile that advertises conspicuously.
Among other pathetic character traits, Ted beams at his own image on the side of a municipal bus while driving around in a sports car with the vanity plate OPN WYD.
Clearly a target for supposedly character-improving ridicule, Ted learns of an Alaskan inheritance and discovers it was left by an unsuspected biological mom. The sobering truth: He was adopted into a loving dental family, as Nichelle Nichols must acknowledge belatedly in the role of Amelia Brooks, a solicitous, widowed adoptive mom.
So it's off to Alaska for a somewhat humbled Miami Ted. The inheritance turns out to be a rustic homestead and a batch of Siberian huskies, augmented by a Scottish terrier called Nana.
The locals seem friendly enough, with the fleeting exception of Mr. Coburn as a gnarly mountain man called Thunder Jack who covets the most aggressive husky, Demon. Demon's demonic glares at Ted are simulated by puppets or computer graphics from Jim Henson's Creature Shop.
Romantic infatuation also beckons in the exotic, perhaps Polynesian form of Barb (Joanna Bacalso), a youngish bartender who was a confidante of Ted's departed mother.
Ted's visit is milked for throwaway gags about critter encounters mutts, skunk, fox and bear and an approaching sled race, a five-day marathon that turns out to be expendable. It does stir Ted's competitive streak, prompting the filmmakers to devote about 30 seconds to the mechanics of sled racing.
Far from being such a quick study that he defeats the sneering Jack in the prestigious Arctic Challenge, Ted ends up bonding with his tormentor.
This switch may or may not qualify as a winning deception with members of the audience. It could be more amusing for moviegoers with long memories, because "Snow Dogs" starts by echoing the tone of the Disney sleeper "Cool Runnings," which celebrated the Jamaican bobsled team, and then veers off into a reprise of a forgotten comedy of 20 years ago, "Carbon Copy."
In other words, interracial reconciliation is the slightly hidden agenda of "Snow Dogs." Confirmed moviegoers will recall that in "Carbon Copy," George Segal discovers, quite belatedly, that he is the father of Denzel Washington. It's a funnier brainstorm now than it was in 1981.
The variant here is that Mr. Gooding is the last person in faraway Tolketna, Alaska (doubled by Canmore, Alberta) to find out that his dad was of the Caucasian persuasion. Guess who? Anyone requiring two guesses flunks the quiz.
Mr. Coburn gets the better end of the sappy deal, because Thunder Jack is protected to some extent by a gruff and contemptuous facade.
I don't think it's unreasonable to believe that Mr. Gooding and cinematic farce can prove mutually beneficial over the years, but the relationship will be troubled if the actor relies on characters as infantile as Ted.
He had a funnier showcase as a fugitive farceur in "Rat Race," which provided him with better outrageous excuses for taking off and blundering into repeated calamity.
At one point, director Brian Levant tries to evoke a scene from "Local Hero" Peter Riegert's nostalgia for the Scottish town he has had to abandon.
This gesture seems crackpot in a movie that fails to sustain enchantment about a distant locale. Mr. Levant also permits one of the dumbest cliffhanging episodes ever seen.
The perilous situation demands the impossible from Demon and the other sled dogs while also coming much too late in the plot to mean anything as a father-son bonding gambit.
"Snow Dogs" finds its level whenever Mr. Gooding is depicted being dragged helplessly through the snow.

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