Summer is creeping around the corner. Now represents the perfect period to catch up on old movies or those you may have missed. Disney dog-themed movies exist in abundance. What better way to deal with those impending “dog days of summer” than to revisit some classic canine fare, or perhaps catch them for the very first time.
Here are five of my favorites that make me shout “bow wow,” organized according to theme. And no, none of the Air Buddies or Beverly Hills Chihuahua films reach even close to making the cut.
THE EMPOWERING DRAMA
Eight Below, the 2006 epic starring the late Paul Walker, was inspired by a true story of abandoned sled dogs in Antarctica in 1958. This moving and emotionally draining survival tale focuses as much time on the canine stars as the humans, chronicling the dogs’ battles with freezing conditions, darkness, and predators for more than a year. It’s a harrowing story with magnificent direction by Frank Marshall, a tender and also grand score by Mark Isham, and great performances by its four-legged heroes. In fact, Walker also brings a compassionate presence to his character who organizes a rescue mission to retrieve his beloved dogs, left behind during a terrible storm. Have tissues on stand-by, though, as several moments may induce some tears. I wish Disney would produce more movies like this one, which even earned respectable numbers at the box office.
THE ANIMATED GEM
Lady and the Tramp, Walt Disney’s 1955 doggone good story about two canines on opposite sides of the track, is just as precious 50 years later after its initial release. Though it lacks the dark depth of other movies of the era – think of Bambi or Dumbo – Lady and the Tramp resonates because of its heart and style. Dismissing the Siamese Cats sequence, which falls prey to old-school stereotypes, the movie has timeless appeal, as its sentimental focus on family, friendship, and love endures. The film was innovative from a technical standpoint, incorporating the wide CinemaScope format, a first for an animated movie. Additionally, its lovely and memorable characters continued the Disney tradition of producing well-rounded personalities during a most prosperous decade for the company.
THE AMBITIOUS ADVENTURE
Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey is not only one of my most beloved animal films of all time, but also one of my childhood favorites. This 1993 drama, based on the 1960s-era production, itself adapted from a book, exudes everything one would desire in a movie of this format. Homeward Bound follows three pets aiming to return to their owners after being left with family friends for a short while. Though possessing voice acting from its three central creatures (Michael J. Fox as Chance the American Bulldog, Don Ameche as Shadow the Golden Retriever, and Sally Field as Sassy the Himalayan cat), Bound‘s three leads are absolutely excellent. In an age when we see movie animals depicted with creepy moving mouths and silly voice work, it is refreshing to witness the pets in their natural states. We simply hear their thoughts and observe their interactions. The physical comedy is amusing, not cloying, and the weighted moments of peril and reflection are as intense as they come. The climactic scene elicits tears every time, though I grin whenever I remember this movie that honors the power of animals devoted to their loved ones.
THE PURELY ENTERTAINING EXPERIENCE
101 Dalmatians, the 1996 live-action adaptation of the animated movie, features a dynamic cast of actors and animals alike. Glenn Close earned a Golden Globe nomination for portraying Cruella de Vil in a role that she made her own, taking the reins from Betty Lou Gerson, whose incomparable work in the 1961 classic also stole the show. Jeff Daniels, Joely Richardson, Joan Plowright, and Hugh Laurie co-starred in this movie that ranges from wacky to utterly charming. A standard plot notwithstanding, the collective chemistry, unforgettable scenes and artistry amount to an enjoyable time for the whole family.
THE SCREWBALL COMEDY
What comes to mind when you think of Dean Jones, Suzanne Pleshette, and a bunch of dogs? Only one film should enter your train of thought. The Ugly Dachshund, a 1966 movie featuring a lovable Great Dane named Brutus who exists in a home full of mischievous dachshunds, is a movie many may forget. After all, Disney produced tons of these types of plots during the ’60s and ’70s. However, for all its zaniness, Ugly Dachshund demonstrates a man’s (Jones) loyalty to his oddly sized canine and the movie has you gushing in delight by its conclusion. Truly wearing its dated decade references on its film sleeve, Dachshund is a fine choice for a lazy summer afternoon on the couch.
Without a doubt, Disney has produced dozens of dog movies over the years, and this column simply could not highlight them all. I would also highly recommend fitting in viewings of The Shaggy Dog (the original), Air Bud (again, the original), and Old Yeller, assuming you can handle the painful conclusion.
Share your thoughts on your favorites, as well as those featured in this edition.
This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Follow me on Twitter for alerts of new editions of Disney In Depth, Thursdays on Geeks of Doom.