In 1994, Gary Paulsen published the book Winterdance, a gripping account of his participation in the Iditarod, a grueling 1,180-mile dogsled race across Alaska that can and frequently does claim life, limb and sanity of some of its participants -- those who don't give up in despair, anyway. It's a compulsive page-turner filled with literal cliff-hangers, hallucinations, brutality and an ending as tragic as it is triumphant. Thus, despite often being buried by bookstores amid how-to coffee-table books on skiing and snowboarding, it ultimately caught the attention of Hollywood.
Winterdance is very easy to imagine on the big screen -- it reads like Vertical Limit as directed by John Milius -- 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 different 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. One can only imagine the story meetings:
"Hey, you know, this is great, but a middle-aged protagonist won't sell. How about we make him young?"
"Dogsledding is cool, but why is it always white guys that do it? Let's make him black."
"Whoa, that's too radical. How about half-black? We'll balance it out by casting a rapper, like maybe that Sisqo kid, as his best friend."
"And what if we use computer animation to make the dogs smile and wink at each other? That'd just be too cute!"
As if all that isn't bad enough, 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 trouper (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 deceased 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 adoptive mother (Nichelle Nichols) has always suspected he has 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, including "Time, Love and Tenderness" as the triumphant climactic number.
Retained from Paulsen's account is the idea that the lead dog in the team, named Devil in the book but a less inflammatory Demon here, is somewhat malevolent, though, this being a Disney movie, even the bad dog mellows out by the end. Also retained is a sequence involving the dogs pulling a car as strength training and an unfortunate skunk encounter. Sledding action, however, is kept to a minimum, and what little there is is so blatantly shot on a soundstage it fails to thrill even slightly. Paulsen is probably crying all the way to the bank, but real mushers are likely to feel gravely insulted.
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 (even the trailer for Adam Sandler's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town remake induces more laughs). 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.