In a classic fish-out-of-water story, a Miami dentist learns he's been adopted after he inherits his birth mother's Alaskan dog sled team. He ventures into the Great White North to find out about where--and who--he really came from and ends up getting a little more than he bargains for.
Ted Brooks (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is Miami's answer to a dental superstar. He's rich, handsome and has a thriving business called Hot Smiles which he has inherited from his late father. Suddenly, his life changes when he receives a summons from Alaska, naming him in the will of a woman he's never heard of. Even though this is the day she dreaded, his mother (Nichelle Nichols) tells him he is adopted and that the deceased woman, Lucy, was his birth mother. Shell-shocked, Ted boards a plane to Alaska to find out about his bloodline and makes his way to the quirky town of Tolketna. There he meets a group of eccentrics, including the town's magistrate and pilot George (M. Emmet Walsh), the lovely saloon owner Barb (Joanna Bacalso) and the crusty mountain man Thunder Jack (James Coburn). Ted also discovers he has inherited a top team of sled dogs, lead by the huskie Demon, a real sweet-natured dog (sure, with a name like Demon, you'd believe that). The dogs take an immediate disliking to the city slicker as does as Jack, who would like nothing better than for Ted to hurry back to warmer climates. Jack badgers Ted to sell him the dogs, but after an interesting turn of events, Ted decides to stick it out in Tolketna and learn all he can about dog sledding that his mother loved so much.
What happened to Cuba Gooding Jr.? He comes out of the gate like gangbusters in the powerful Boyz in the Hood and wows them with his Oscar-winning performance in Jerry Maguire--and then, boom! he's in a string of mediocre-to-bad films (Instinct, Men of Honor, Rat Race) and a few brief appearances in good movies (As Good As It Gets). He's really not all bad in Snow Dogs, once he stops falling off cliffs and eating a lot of snow, but it's his choice of material that's concerning. He should really be looking for more meaty roles. Right next to him is Oscar-winning Coburn as the mean Thunder Jack, who just barely manages to find some integrity in the silly part he plays. Maybe they both needed some extra cash. The rest of the cast does an adequate job, playing the stereotypical characters Disney family films have come to embody, but it seems such a waste of talent to cast actors such as Graham Greene (as a town resident) in such small roles. Newcomer Bacalso is nice to look at with a thankless part. The one bright spot in the casting is Nichols. It's great to see her doing something other than Star Trek's Lt. Uhura.
Director Brian Levant has had experience working with dogs before, having directed the family film about a lovable St. Bernard, Beethoven. Therefore, the dog scenes are deftly handled and provide some good moments, especially when they are interacting with each other. It's the human story that has the flaws. The film starts off pretty slapsticky and you're worried its not going to get any better, but it eventually it sorts itself out and finds its rhythm halfway through after getting us past all the fish-out-of-water stuff. Yes, we understand Ted Brooks is from Miami and doesn't know the first thing about living in an arctic climate. Oh, there he goes falling in the snow again as the dogs knock him off the sled! Honestly, one isn't quite sure how the character manages to stay alive with all the falling he does. Once the film gets into the meat of the story, the relationship between Ted and Thunder Jack, the film redeems itself. Dogs does end up being a sugary-sweet story about family, which is predictable, but it has a nice feeling, nonetheless. The scenery is also spectacular to look at, shot almost entirely in the winter chill of Alberta, Canada.
The kids will love the antics of Snow Dogs but don't expect too much Disney magic.