Despite deceptive TV ads marketing it as a talking-animal comedy, this amiable, old-fashioned family film is really a straightforward fish-out-of-water tale with lessons for the little ones and a surprisingly earnest and moving performance from James Coburn. Unlike affable star Cuba Gooding Jr., who mistakes mugging and eye-rolling for acting, Coburn creates a character, not a cartoon. A trouper and the consummate pro, he plays with élan the role of a gruff old outdoorsman — a part many others would have walked through — and gives his character as much depth as if he were back in CHARADE or THE PRESIDENT'S ANALYST. After a 1970s prologue featuring a young Ted Brooks (Jascha Washington) and his dentist dad (Christopher Judge) that gives a clear indication that Ted is not himself a born dentist, we jump to present-day Miami Beach where, for Dr. Ted Brooks (Gooding), life is beachin'. Now a rich, happy and very successful dentist whose face appears on the sides of buses, Ted has a comic-relief partner, Rupert (R&B singer Sisqó, whose sub-Chris Rock routine is embarrassing), and a doting mom, Amelia (an elegant Nichelle Nichols). One day Ted learns that he's inherited the modest estate of one Lucy Watkins of Tolketna, Alaska — his birth mother, he's stunned to learn. (Ted takes the news of his adoption as if he's been informed of a brain tumor, so adoptive parents might want to pass on taking their kids to see this.) Ted, bundled up in high-end thermal gear, heads north to Alaska to seek his roots. He discovers his African-American mom was a salty but beloved dog-sledder who finished as high as third in the Arctic Challenge — which, as the dialogue informs us, is not a fictionalized version of the famed Iditarod. Ted also learns that he's inherited a backwoods cabin and seven champion huskies — Diesel, Duchess, Mack, Scooper, Sniff, Yodel and the aptly named lead dog, Demon — as well as a mutt named Nana. Amid the expected culture-shock gags, romance sparks between city-slicker Ted and bar-owner Barb (Joanna Bacalso), the model-gorgeous girl you always find tossing drunks out of wilderness roadhouses. Ted also encounters his biological dad, goes through a few rites of passage involving a lot of slapstick (at which neither Gooding nor his stunt doubles are particularly good), goes head-to-head with an old mountain man who covets his dogs (Coburn) and learns about being true to himself, facing up to challenges and not quitting when things get tough. Formulaic but not entirely predictable, it's like old-school Disney, but without Tim Conway.
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