Jim Henson's Dog City: The Movie Review

Sesame Street. The Muppets. Labyrinth. Jim Henson is famous for many shows, films and characters. Dog City isn't one of them, but it's a great little piece of what made Jim Henson so special. It's a one-hour mini-movie, part of the short-lived 1989 prime time series The Jim Henson Hour. It's essentially a spoof of film noir, set in the 30s in a city populated by dogs. The story's narrated by Rowlf the Dog (one of Henson's earliest characters) and follows the good guy dog Ace Yu as he arrives in Dog City and takes on the resident gangster Bugsy Them. If you think this sounds like a hammy, self-aware parody with lots of bad puns, you're absolutely right. But it's great, and it actually won Jim Henson a Primetime Emmy for best Outstanding Directing in a Variety or Music Program.

The story opens up with a clever song number that has the entire cast of puppet dogs singing about the tough streets of Dog City. We see that famous Rowlf the Dog is our narrator/Piano player for the story, and settle in on a rundown bar called The Dog House as our hero – Ace Yu – enters. Before getting into the story, Ace and the barkeep go through a full minute or two of Laurel and Hardy-style name-based humor. (“I'm Yu.” “You're me?” “It's simple. Yu is me.” “You're you? Then who is me?” “Oh. Who is you? Pleased to meet you Who.”) It's clever and quick enough to win a wide grin if not full-on laughter. Rowlf chimes in with some self-aware references to the bad puns and the genre conventions they're playing on. This sets the comedic tone for the entire piece. If you/your kids are smiling in the first five minutes, keep watching. If not, things aren't likely to change.

We find out that Ace has inherited the bar from his late Uncle Harry and plans to run the place to honor his memory. But the crowd at the Dog House informs him that he'll have to contend with Them. After figuring out that “Them” isn't a “they” but the gangster Bugsy Them, Ace resolves to stand up to Bugsy. He tells everyone that if they stick together, they can take Dog City back from Bugsy without violence. In a pretty funny moment, the bar clears out as Ace gives a rousing speech about how they'll stand up to the beatings, intimidation and hardship that will come from the struggle.

We meet our villain Bugsy in a clever way also. He's a bulldog with a voice that's a cross between an imitation of Brando's Godfather and a nasty growl. The biggest joke played in his first scene is that he's gotten where he is today through the use of senseless violence – and that he's not going to jeopardize his empire by putting sense behind his violence. Bugsy is the classic kid's movie mix of scary villain and goofball bad guy. One minute you're afraid of him and the next you're laughing at him and his inept henchmen.

The story really gets going when Bugsy threatens Ace and beats him up with a newspaper. Though the humor in one dog beating another with a newspaper is undeniable, the scene is surprisingly intense for a story told solely through talking puppet dogs. This is something that's true throughout all of Dog City: though the comedy is goofy, laden with movie references and lighthearted, no punches are pulled when it comes to the drama and themes touched on. Honor, when it's okay to be violent, good vs. evil, being an orphan, and even promiscuity are explored honestly in a way that's appropriate for kids.

And that's what makes Dog City worth a viewing. Addressing real issues with a distinct comedic touch is part of what made Jim Henson so famous, and that's on display here. That and a cast of funny, distinct dog puppets and a pretty damn cool 30's era noir city landscape. So if you're in the mood for a corny but funny noir spoof OR love dogs OR love puppets OR are nostalgic for old school Jim Henson OR want to introduce your kids to what a kids movie was like before CGI, definitely check out Dog City.

DVD Bonus Features

There are two special features, neither too special. One has a collection of the original concept art strung together in a 3-minute video. (Fun for Henson enthusiasts.) The other is a handful of set photos taken during production. Combined they're about 4 minutes worth of content.

"Jim Henson's Dog City: The Movie" is on sale June 8, 2010 and is not rated. Children & Family. Directed by Jim Henson. Written by Michael Edens, David Finley, Marty Isenberg, Julia Lewald, Will Smith. Starring Elizabeth Hanna, John Stocker, Ron White, Stuart Stone.



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