Is Step Dogs a lost Christmas classic?
Well, answering that question takes very little deliberation: no.
Why? For starters, it has to do with lies. Big, fat lies.
Some serious skulduggery has been involved in the packaging of Step Dogs. Generally, when it comes to buying movies, there’s an unwritten rule between consumers and studios: when you pick up a DVD and see Christmas paraphernalia on the cover (a tree aglow with lights; Santa hats; snow; and more), you expect the film contained on said disc to be set over the Yuletide season.
Alas, this is not the case with Step Dogs.
Depending on the edition you buy, the cover may well feature the titular pooches, Santa hats, a tree, and presents. Now, the message all this sends is clear – the film you’re about to watch is a fun Christmas-rich piece filled with all the feel-good tropes you’d expect.
However, nowhere in the entire film is there a single mention of the festive season.
That’s right. In our edition, Step Dogs has been marketed as a seasonal flick, but the only thing about it carrying any connotations of Christmas is the snow on the ground. Filmed in Saskatchewan, Canada (no doubt within a few months of Christmas), snow is to be expected … but there is no hint of a tree, or presents, or a jolly old fat guy with eight reindeer. Some editions of the DVD are totally free of Christmas, and much more honest about the film’s snowy-but-unseasonal action.
Clearly, the decision to basically sucker customers into believing this is a Christmas movie is all down to fooling people into buying it, no doubt expecting a seasonal hoot for the kids. Instead, it’s a surprisingly downbeat little film that takes Home Alone, tosses in a little Homeward Bound, and then sucks most of the fun from both concepts.
Let it snow
Let’s kick off with the story.
Widowed rancher Rick has recently married Sabrina, a movie star. Rick has a young son, Josh, who is clearly still struggling with the loss of his mum, while Sabrina has a niece, Lacey. Both kids are the type you’d expect: Josh is somewhat introverted, Lacey is fresh from Hollywood, still fuming after being denied a reality show.
These kids have yet to hit it off – neither is thrilled at the idea of sharing a house, especially with their carers heading off for a honeymoon. To make things more complicated, Josh has a dog, Meatball, who’s a good ol’ country boy; Lacey has a prim little Hollywood pooch, Cassie, who wears a sleep mask while snoozing and is in no mood for Meatball’s less refined way of life.
Rick asks Krystal, a neighbour with a penchant for macrobiotic food, to watch over Josh and Lacey while they’re away on honeymoon. Meanwhile, Sabrina’s former assistant, Terence, is plotting to steal her priceless diamond (a family heirloom), which is safely locked away in Rick’s safe.
The promotional patter and cover for Step Dogs would have you believe that Meatball and Cassie are left alone in the house for much of the film, and have to concoct many hilarious ways to fend off Terence and his bumbling sidekick, Louie. Instead, though, while the crooks spend what feels like years trying to break into the safe, the dogs are only actually battling them for the final fifteen minutes or so … and even then, this is miles away from Home Alone‘s inventive, funny, often horrific methods.
Speaking of the dogs, praise has to be given to the effects work: when Meatball and Cassie speak (which they do, rather unexpectedly), their mouths really are well-animated. However, while Cassie sounds as sweetly Californian as she should, Meatball’s voice is, to be honest, unbearable.
Because Meatball’s a farm dog, voice actor Lee Tockar has decided to give him a ‘country’ tone, which equates to a grating Southern accent … in all honesty, he sounds like Michael Rooker playing an old prospector. Badly. While suffering from a cold.
How much is that doggy in the window? The one with the TNT
Really, Step Dogs takes a lot of time to get going. The film seems to have no idea whether it actually wants to be a farce filled with crime-fighting canines or a gentle story of kids dealing with lost parents & step-families. We’re given plenty of moments between Josh and Lacey, as they slowly bond over their shared sense of missing something important from their lives, and, to be fair, these scenes are pretty well done.
In the end, though, the talking dogs themselves feel tacked-on, and when they do finally take on the burglars, the action is all so unfunny & cheap, it’s hard to actually find it anything but tiresome. The lack of promised Christmassy elements also doesn’t help – the setting is gorgeous, with snow and forests all around, but there’s not a tree or bauble in sight.
It’s a shame, really, because there’s definitely a good film to be made about plucky canines defending their home against intruders … but this isn’t it. The burglars themselves are cut-price Wet Bandits, with none of the acting chops Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern brought to Home Alone, displaying a level of incompetence that makes watching their attempts infuriating.
There’s also some inconsistency: they’ve procured dynamite to blow the safe’s huge metallic door off its hinges, but despite the damage it could clearly do, when the explosives go off at their feet, both men end up with little more than cartoony black, smouldering faces. Why no flying limbs? Why no entrails? There’s no internal logic, dammit!
Still, Terence and Louie do have the film’s best moment of dialogue, in which the latter explains his dumbness away due to being kicked in the head by a cow as a child, despite having grown up in the city.
So, is Step Dogs a lost Christmas classic? Even if it were the greatest film ever made, the complete lack of any seasonal elements makes it impossible to rank it alongside the likes of It’s A Wonderful Life, Scrooged, or any other festive favourites. One to miss.
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