The Shaggy D.A. (1976)
Written by Don Tait
Directed by Robert Stevenson
I remember watching the original Shaggy Dog film as a kid and enjoying it quite a bit. I remember memorizing the Latin incantation and playing the film out with my siblings. Now it’s been twenty-plus years since I last saw that movie, and I never happened to sit down and watch the follow-up. By this time, the original Wilby Daniels, Tommy Kirk, had been arrested for marijuana possession, and thus his career with Disney was terminated. In 1976, Dean Jones was a go-to in the studio’s acting stable, and so he was put into the role.
Wilby Daniels is now an adult who practices law in his hometown of Medfield. After a robbery by men posing as movers, Wilby decides to throw his hat in the ring and challenge the incumbent district attorney John Slade. Around the same time, the robbers come across the Borgia ring that got Daniels into all sorts of trouble as a teen. Through a series of circumstances, the incantation is read, and Wilby is dealing with his transformations in the middle of the election campaign. Hijinks, inevitably, ensue.
This was the third pairing of Dean Jones and Suzanne Pleshette, who previously co-starred in Blackbeard’s Ghost and The Ugly Dachsund together. It was also the final film of Robert Stevenson both in his career and for Disney. He’d made 19 features for the Mouse, his most successful being Mary Poppins. Keenan Wynn pops up as John Slade, continuing the character actor’s resume as a Disney stock villain. Wynn played the villainous Alonzo Hawk in The Absent-Minded Professor, Son of Flubber, and Herbie Rides Again. The first two films take place in the same universe as The Shaggy Dog movies and the Dexter Riley trilogy, which provides further proof that Disney was doing the cinematic universe thing before it was popular.
Of the Disney comedies I’ve watched from the 1970s, this is one of the more mediocre rather than outright terrible. It’s most definitely aimed at kids with those winking jokes for the adults. The plot gets overly convoluted, and the third act definitely drags on too long. The screenwriter is leaning into the dog transformation, something that was done a little more sparingly in the original so that when it happened, it was a big deal.
There’s a conceit throughout the film where Tim Conway, as a local ice cream man, becomes convinced he has a talking dog. In reality, it is Wilby trading places with his pooch. Conway will have Wilby and be just about to prove himself right to an incredulous acquaintance, and then the switch will happen. It’s moderately humorous the first time, but by the sixth, it’s grating. The movie also falls back on a set-piece gag that has baffled me my entire life: the pie fight. I do not understand why anyone thinks those things are so funny, and here they continue not to be.
There’s something old fashioned about the movie and not necessarily in a good way. It feels like it’s getting ready to make a slightly pointed jab at modern politics and then collapses into the same silliness most Disney movies possess. I wasn’t expecting Moliere level discourse on elections, but it would be nice if the film had something say beyond existing as a live-action cartoon.