Bad Dogs 

Once again, Disney turns a good book into steaming mush.

In 1994, author Gary Paulsen published the book Winterdance, a gripping account of his participation in the Iditarod, a grueling 1,180-mile dogsled race across Alaska. It's a compulsive page-turner filled with literal cliff-hangers, hallucinations, brutality, and an ending as tragic as it is triumphant. Thus, it ultimately caught the attention of Hollywood.

Winterdance is very easy to imagine on the big screen, but the movie it has become plays like a parody of all that's corrupt about the Hollywood developmental process. Snow Dogs, as it's now called, retains for Paulsen's book only a "suggested by" credit; the writing is attributed to five people (among them folks responsible for Operation Dumbo Drop, Cool Runnings, and The In Crowd), and the director is Brian Levant, responsible for the Flintstones movies.

In Snow Dogs, the Iditarod itself has been excised, which is sort of the equivalent of doing The Perfect Storm without that whole boat thing; the race is mentioned only in passing, replaced by a shorter, much less dangerous one called the "Arctic Challenge." Instead, we get The Shipping News on stupid pills, with yet another dorky bachelor (Cuba Gooding Jr.) heading to the frozen north to resolve his absent-father issues with the help of an improbably beautiful local girl (Joanna Bacalso of Dude, Where's My Car?) and a crusty old trooper (James Coburn, acting as if he's in a real movie).

Gooding, who plays a dentist named Ted, spends most of the movie falling off dogsleds, through ice and off hillsides, at least when he's not being mauled by dogs or attacked by a bear (whichever writer thought to play these scenes for laughs ought to be locked in a cage with a wild animal for 10 minutes). Having only recently discovered he's adopted, Ted journeys to his late birth-mother's home in Alaska to find he's inherited her champion dogsled team and that his father is Coburn, whose character is named Thunder Jack because "he got hit by thunder, twice."

It gets worse. Ted's adopted mother (Nichelle Nichols) has always suspected he may have white blood in him, because he likes blue cheese and Michael Bolton. Bolton himself provides the movie's only laugh in a cameo, but that laugh sticks in your craw when you realize that four of the great white dope's songs are on the film's soundtrack.

It's too early in the year yet to call Snow Dogs the worst film of 2002 and have that statement mean anything, but it's quite likely going to be the biggest betrayal of its source material we'll see for a good while. If you've never read the book, Snow Dogs may simply be a stupid waste of your time. But if you know the source, it's an abomination.

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