Wilby Daniels (Dean Jones) has hit a rough patch recently when he returned home with his wife Betty (Suzanne Pleshette) and son Brian (Shane Sinutko) to discover their belongings had been cleaned out. He learned from his seafaring neighbour the Admiral (John Myhers) that a removal van had visited the house and he thought they were leaving – they weren’t, but their stuff was, against their wishes. To make matters worse, that night their remaining belongings, including the last items of clothing other than what they were sleeping in, were stolen as well while they slept, and this makes up Wilby’s mind to run for District Attorney, since the present one “Honest” John Slade (Keenan Wynn) is doing nothing but damage…
But what has that to do with turning into an English sheepdog? Good question, and one which this comedy was able to crowbar in with some difficulty during the first half hour; you may remember the original movie where Tommy Kirk was transformed thanks to a magic ring owned by Lucretia Borgia, just read the inscription and he was canine in body but not spirit. In the seventeen years since that hit, Kirk had become rather a problematic figure for Disney who produced it thanks to controversies in his private life that had been made public, therefore their reliable go-to guy in this era for a leading man Dean Jones was recruited to take over the now grown up role. Aside from the time spent in the makeup chair to render him in the mid-transformation stages, a lot of white fuzz and a wet, black nose basically, it must have been an easy gig for him.
That was down to the star not being needed on the set for about half the movie for many of his scenes were played by the dog, with Jones in voiceover in conjunction with the special effects and editing to make it look as if the dog was speaking. This may sound absolutely ri-goddamned-diculous but in practice it looked… absolutely ri-goddamned-diculous, an item of lunacy for more reasons than its predecessor was. The title, for a start, was an indication that we were in the post-Watergate nineteen-seventies, as Honest John was anything but, so we had a character who habitually becomes a pooch fighting back against corruption in public office which was about as political as Disney would get.
Well, as political as they would get in their fiction, at any rate, but as with everything here the baddies were caricatures and the goodies cartoonish, so it was all really in the service of the slapstick with the customary pie fight offering the indelible image of Wynn walking into the melee and having one thrown at his face with such force that his cigar burst through its paper plate. By way of explanation – and this was nothing if not convoluted – that ring has been stolen by two crooks, the same two who burgled Wilby’s house, and sold on to ice cream man Tim (TV comedy legend Tim Conway) for a pittance since they couldn’t rid themselves of it on the black market. Tim has a sheepdog, and when he reads out the writing on it the mutt becomes Wilby in goofy quasi-werewolf fashion.
The mechanism for this remained obscure to say the least, but it didn’t matter, all that mattered was we would see the dog dressed in human clothes, rollerskating in a roller derby, and that old standby, driving. Just as before, the vision of a four legged friend behind the wheel of a car (and a van, in this case) was comedy gold, and summed up the ludicrous nature of the project, which would prove the last for veteran Disney director Robert Stevenson, here hanging up his megaphone after decades of faithful service including the all-time classic Mary Poppins. The Shaggy D.A. was not exactly at that level, and many observers at the time used it as a stick to beat the House of Mouse for its perceived drop in quality now that Uncle Walt was no longer with us, but if you forget all the behind the scenes turmoil at the studio of the seventies then you might find yourself chuckling merrily at the daft gags and frankly bizarre visuals, almost as if they were unaware of how weird they were getting, which always makes for an interesting experience. The cast were reliably professional. Music by Buddy Baker, including ahead of his time Jones rapping the theme.