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Silly 'Shaggy Dog' barks up the right tree

It's silly. It's slapstick. It's even, in the view of the 8-year-old in the next seat, ''kinda stupid." But sometimes -- a chilly Saturday in March, say, with kids to amuse and when a stir-crazy parent needs a little amusement herself -- silly, slapstick, and kinda stupid is just what you need.

What ''The Shaggy Dog" feels like, more than anything, is an old-fashioned Disney movie -- hardly earth-shattering news, since it is a Disney movie, and a reworking of a couple of old Disney movies at that. Still, it's a pleasant surprise to find a movie that genuinely pitches itself at a child's level while also giving parents some real laughs. This is trickier than it seems, and something too many movies try to do with kid-pandering flatulence and adult-oriented innuendo.

Here, there's not a gas-passing joke in sight. The bathroom humor confines itself to one funny, if predictable, moment when Tim Allen, as a work-crazy district attorney who's turning into a dog, hesitates in front of a urinal and then lifts his leg.

Perhaps you want to know more about why he's turning into a dog. Don't trouble yourself too much: It involves ancient Tibetan secrets, a genetic mutation that's somehow transmitted virally, and, in a nice contemporary twist, an evil pharmaceutical company that's trying to exploit the virus to create a marketable form of eternal youth. (You not only turn into a dog; you reverse the usual dog-years formula and live seven years for every human year.) The plot is just twisty enough to keep things moving, and not so complex as to distract from the real point, which is to watch Allen panting and fetching and chasing cats and (spoiler alert!) learning to be a better husband and father.

Robert Downey Jr. makes a terrifically slick villain, whose simmering megalomania inevitably comes to a hilarious boil. There are a few unsettling moments in the biolab -- a failed experiment produces a bullfrog-bulldog hybrid that's just a little too creepy -- but mostly the filmmakers strike the right balance between suspense and laughter.

Kudos to Kristin Davis and Danny Glover, too, in the relatively straight roles of Allen's wife and boss. Like the more exuberantly funny stars, they know they're in a silly movie, but they never condescend to it. Therefore, neither do we. And that makes for a surprisingly good time.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at

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