A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this Jim Henson production -- originally a made-for-TV special that aired in 1989 -- is a crime caper modeled after 1930s "film noirs," so there's a lot of fedora-wearing, handgun-wielding dogs that spout anachronisms like "Why I oughtta." There's a good bit of violence (guns shot, dogs taken hostage and hit with rolled-up newspapers), but all of it is cartoonish and exaggerated. Two female dogs are the girlfriends of two male dogs (one is a crime boss' "moll" that makes the male dogs drool), and the couples embrace and nose-kiss. The female dogs are as brave as the male dogs, and there's a good message about nonviolence and standing up to bullies.
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What's the story?
Set in a '30s style canine metropolis called DOG CITY, the movie follows German Shepherd Ace Yu (voiced by Kevin Clash) who's just inherited a bar from his long-lost uncle. The bartender Bubba and other regulars inform Ace that all the business owners in town are expected to pay the local bulldog crime lord Bugsy Them (Jim Henson) or pay the consequences. When Bugsy and his henchdogs show up for their kick-back, Ace -- a believer in nonviolence -- informs them that his inheritance is going toward a house for orphans and that he'll neither pay nor fight him over it. After taking a beating, Ace meets and falls for the lovely Colleen (Fran Brill), who is eventually dog-napped by Bugsy. Ace must choose between his beliefs and his girl to bring down Bugsy and his goons.
Is it any good?
Any kid -- or adult -- who's a fan of Henson's puppetry genius will delight in this short little take off on old-Hollywood gangster flicks. Narrating the action with his grown-up-friendly jokes is none other than Rowlf (Henson), since this is, of course, set in a city of all dogs. The voices are, as always, perfectly suited to the setting -- the crime-syndicate boss sounds a bit like Marlon Brando, the anti-hero has a deep, velvety voice, and the moll has that unmistakable high-pitched, nasally voice that gangster molls always have in films. Occasionally you can see the puppet strings, but that's not uncommon in Henson productions, and if anything is just a reminder that unlike the standard CGI fare, these creations required a human to manipulate and voice them at all times.
The only reason this isn't a four-star movie is that many kids just won't be in on the jokes. Unless they've seen Bugsy Malone, many children won't understand the time period, the costumes or the character types that make the 40-minute film so funny and spot-on for adults. There are also some puns and double-entendres that will go over kids' heads -- mostly courtesy of Rowlf or Bugsy (both of whom are voiced by Henson). If you have a Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, Muppet devotee in your family, this is a great way to discover one of Henson's lesser-known (and final) films.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the elements of '30s movies, particularly film noir and gangster flicks, that were spoofed in this movie.
How is watching a movie with all puppets different than animated or live-action movies? Discuss how each puppet requires a puppetteer to manipulate it and provide the voice.
Jim Henson's legacy in children's entertainment is one of the most powerful in popular culture. What are your favorite Henson creations and why?
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