Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Shaggy D.A.
All the way back in 1959, The Shaggy Dog introduced the world to Walt Disney’s Gimmick Comedies. It had been an enormous hit and its success begat the Flubber movies, the Merlin Jones misadventures, the Dexter Riley trilogy and many more. But as long as Walt was around, it was immune from sequelitis. By 1976, Walt had been in the ground (or, if you prefer the urban legend, on ice) for a decade and the studio he’d founded needed a hit. So it’s hardly a surprise that producers Ron Miller and Bill Anderson decided to revisit one of Disney’s most successful movies for a belated sequel. It’s a little surprising that The Shaggy D.A. is what they were able to come up with.
No one involved with the original film returned for the second chapter. Director Charles Barton and cowriter Lillie Hayward had both retired and cowriter and producer Bill Walsh had passed away in 1975. Don Tait, most recently responsible for Treasure Of Matecumbe, was assigned script duties and Robert Stevenson was tapped to direct. This would be the final film for the prolific Stevenson, who began his tenure at Disney in 1957 with Johnny Tremain. In 1977, Variety reported that Stevenson was the most commercially successful director of all time with no less than 17 films on their list of box office champs. He wouldn’t hold on to that title, of course. But it was a nice feather in the cap of an impressive career. Robert Stevenson passed away in 1986 at the age of 81 and was posthumously named a Disney Legend in 2002.
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It would have been simple enough for Tait and Stevenson to wipe the slate clean and essentially remake The Shaggy Dog. But they decided to return to Medfield and bring back Wilby Daniels, the teenage shape-shifter from the original. They did not bring back Tommy Kirk and presumably didn’t bother to ask since he was certainly available. Kirk hadn’t worked for Disney since Walt reluctantly brought him back for The Monkey’s Uncle in 1965. Things hadn’t been going well for Tommy since then. He’d spiraled into drug addiction and was appearing in fewer and fewer films. Around the time of The Shaggy D.A., he finally started to turn his life around, kicking his drug habit and leaving acting behind. Under the circumstances, Disney was never going to bring him back as Wilby and Tommy’s fragile sobriety was probably better off that way.
Instead, Disney recast the role with Dean Jones, back at the studio for the first time since Snowball Express in 1972. Jones was ten years older than Tommy Kirk and doesn’t look or act anything like him. There are no references to his dad (Fred MacMurray back in the day) or his brother, Moochie (Kevin Corcoran). For all intents and purposes, this might just as well be a completely different character also named Wilby Daniels who had a run-in with the Borgia ring when he was a kid.
As you may or may not recall (and don’t feel bad if you don’t since apparently nobody at Disney did, either), young Wilby was a bit of a tinkerer, experimenting with homemade rockets in the basement. So you might think he grew up to pursue a career in science. Nope! Wilby decided to become a lawyer, for some reason. He also got married to a supportive wife named Betty (Suzanne Pleshette, returning for one last go-around with her Ugly Dachshund and Blackbeard’s Ghost costar) and had a son, Brian (Shane Sinutko).
The Daniels family still lives in the same house on the Disney backlot, next door to retired Navy man Admiral Brenner (Disney repertory player John Myhers, last seen in Treasure Of Matecumbe). The Admiral is surprised to see a moving van outside the Daniels house but, like a good neighbor, still offers a couple frosty glasses of beer to the tired movers. But the Daniels aren’t moving. They’ve just been on vacation and because one of those movers is played by all-purpose Disney bad guy Dick Bakalyan, we know they’re up to no good. For those of you keeping score at home, this is Disney Movie #6 for the ever-popular Bakalyan and he ain’t done yet, folks.
When the Daniels discover they’ve been robbed blind and the police response is underwhelming, Betty urges Wilby to run for district attorney. Wilby doesn’t take the suggestion seriously until the thieves make a Grinch-like return that night to steal the few things left. Convinced that Medfield has become a city of crime, Wilby vows to run for office and unseat crooked D.A. John Slade (who else but Keenan Wynn in the last of his six Disney features).
Slade is in the pocket of crime lord Eddie Roschak (Vic Tayback from No Deposit, No Return), the very man the burglars fenced the Daniels’ stuff to. Having made a nice profit from that score, the thieves head to the Medfield Museum of Art, now under the curatorship of Professor Whatley (the great Hans Conried, making his first Disney appearance since Davy Crockett). When Whatley shows off the “priceless” Borgia ring, the bad guys swipe it. Unfortunately, the bauble has no intrinsic value to Roschak, so he passes on it.
Eager to unload the ring, Freddie and Dip sell it to local ice cream man Tim (Tim Conway, of course), who buys it as a gift for his girlfriend, roller derby star Katrinka Muggelberg (Laugh-In star and future Beauty And The Beast voice actor Jo Anne Worley). Naturally, Tim reads the Latin inscription, “In canis corpore transmuto,” out loud to his faithful sheepdog, Elwood. Now it was my understanding from the first film that whoever read the inscription transformed into a dog. But I guess the ring is still locked on to Wilby’s wavelength because he turns into Elwood, mere moments before a live TV broadcast to announce his candidacy for district attorney. Believe me, it will not help you to think too hard about the rules in these movies.
Wilby/Elwood manages to get out of the house and back to Tim, who is astonished to hear his dog speak. Tim immediately sees Elwood the Talking Dog as a one-way ticket to Easy Street. But before he can put his plan into action, Wilby/Elwood breaks free and hides out in a doghouse until the spell wears off. Wilby makes it back to his press conference in time to put Slade and Roschak on notice. Slade orders his faithful lickspittle, Raymond (Dick Van Patten, king of the Disney lickspittles), to follow Wilby and dig up some dirt. As for Tim, he brings Elwood to a local tavern where he bets the bartender (Pat McCormick) that his dog can speak. Needless to say, Tim loses that bet.
Wilby is determined to find the ring but his packed campaign schedule has him delivering a speech to the ladies’ gardening club. While he’s there, Tim delivers the ring to Katrinka, who once again reads the inscription while Wilby is mid-speech. Betty notices him start to transform and shoves him under the table before he turns fully into a dog. But Raymond is understandably suspicious about Wilby’s sudden disappearance and Elwood’s equally sudden appearance.
Wilby leaves the club in a shambles and hops into a cab but soon runs into Tim. Tim convinces Wilby to return to the bar and sing a little number for the skeptical drunks. But the spell wears off while Wilby’s waiting in the truck, resulting in another humiliation for Tim and Elwood as they’re forcibly ejected from the place.
While Wilby and Betty scour the pawn shops for the ring, Brian learns about the ring Tim has given Katrinka. The Daniels descend upon the pastry shop where she works but Katrinka has already lost the ring in an order of pies sent to a John Slade fundraiser. Wilby offers a big cash reward to whoever finds the ring and all the pastry ladies invade the hotel to tear apart the pies. Yes, it’s a good old-fashioned pie fight. Somehow the ring ends up back in the hands of the two thieves, who just happened to be passing by. They try reselling it but their mark is an undercover cop and they land in jail.
Both Wilby and Raymond head for the police station where Professor Whatley has been summoned to identify the ring. The prof recounts the story of The Shaggy Dog and reads the inscription. Wilby transforms into a dog again and Raymond returns to Slade with the news. He also somehow manages to get the ring away from Professor Whatley and the police, which doesn’t make a lot of sense but just roll with it.
Slade is fairly certain that Raymond has lost his mind but arranges a meeting with Wilby just in case. When Wilby defiantly refuses to drop out of the race, Slade reads the inscription and discovers the story is true. Slade calls animal control to haul Wilby to the pound but the dog leaps up, cold cocks Raymond and escapes out the window, sliding down a rope to the street below. Yep, you read all that right. Stevenson gets a lot of mileage out of sticking a stuntman in a dog suit in this movie. It’s a choice.
While the animal control guys (played by Dexter Riley’s old pal Schuyler, Michael McGreevey, and instantly recognizable voice actor John Fiedler) chase Wilby/Elwood, Slade repeats the inscription over and over to ensure the spell doesn’t wear off. The chase leads to the roller derby rink, where the stuntman in the dog suit puts on a uniform and roller blades. Tim chases after his roller-blading dog and eventually Wilby is captured and sent to the pound.
Wilby comes to surrounded by stray dogs who talk like Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre and other old-time movie stars (voiced by comedian and impressionist George Kirby). The dogs have a plan to tunnel out of their kennel but the vengeful Slade has called the governor to have Wilby/Elwood put to death immediately. The animal control officer makes Wilby walk the Green Mile but the dog orders him to sit. Dumbstruck by the talking dog, the officer obeys and Wilby rushes back to help finish the tunnel. The dogs pile into the van and Wilby/Elwood drives them to freedom.
Back at the Daniels house, Wilby disguises himself in a trenchcoat and heads out to find the ring. Along the way, he runs into Tim and explains the whole story to him. Tim agrees to help and pretends to be one of Roschak’s men. He visits Slade’s house and lets him know Roschak is cutting him loose. Slade heads straight to Roschak’s secret warehouse to confront him with Tim and the dogs following close behind.
At the warehouse, Wilby sneaks into Roschak’s office with a big clunky tape recorder. Slade shows up and he and Roschak have an incriminating conversation spelling out their entire arrangement. Wilby grabs the recorder but is spotted by Roschak’s goons before he can escape. In the confusion, the ring is dropped right in front of Wilby. He reverts to human form and hot-foots it out of there with both the ring and the tape.
The bad’uns chase after Wilby and friends but are pulled over by the police. Raymond smugly tells the cops that he’s driving District Attorney John Slade. But when the officer looks in the back seat, he sees a bulldog instead. It seems that Slade’s obsessive repetition of the inscription has transferred the curse to him. Safely at home, Wilby hands the tape over to the police. He goes on to win the election, Tim and Katrinka get engaged and adopt all of Wilby’s pound pals. Medfield is safe at last!
By almost all objective standards, The Shaggy D.A. is a pretty bad film. What passes for a story is little more than a loosely connected series of gags and incidents. If there was a point to making Wilby run for district attorney, it was lost early on. Stevenson and Tait ignore the first film whenever it proves inconvenient. It’s as if their ideal target audience for this sequel was people who didn’t remember much about The Shaggy Dog.
But what can you say about a movie that features an enormous climactic pie fight within its first half hour and only gets sillier and weirder from there? The anonymous stuntmen (or possibly women, I guess, but probably men) who donned the dog costume are the real heroes of this picture. Their noble work transforms the usual Disney slapstick into something approaching surrealist art. The Shaggy Dog had a dog driving a car and that was fine. The Shaggy D.A. has a dog riding a bike, competing in a roller derby and swinging from ropes. Consider the ante upped.
The Shaggy D.A. was Disney’s big Christmas release for 1976, debuting on December 17. A lot of critics were relatively kind to it but it didn’t do quite as well as the studio had hoped. Part of the problem was its competition, Dino De Laurentiis’ big-budget remake of King Kong, which opened the same day. The Shaggy D.A. eventually earned a little over $10 million at the box office. Not bad but not up to the standards of the original.
This would be Disney’s last trip to Medfield for a while, as well as their last experiment with the Borgia ring. In 1987, Saturday Night Live star Gary Kroeger would take over as Wilby in the made-for-TV sequel The Return Of The Shaggy Dog. A few years later in 1994, Scott Weinger and Disney alumni Ed Begley, Jr. would appear in a made-for-TV remake of the original Shaggy Dog. Finally, at least so far, Tim Allen starred in a reimagined theatrical Shaggy Dog remake in 2006. I haven’t seen any of those (at least not yet) but if any of them feature a sight half as bizarre as Dick Van Patten getting punched in the face by a sheepdog, I’d be very surprised.
VERDICT: My brain knows this is a Disney Minus but my heart says it’s a cockeyed Disney Plus.
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