Few companies throughout the history of the world have been so shameless in their pursuit of the almighty dollar as the Walt Disney Company. After breaking the mold in 1934, Disney has never shied away from creative marketing and release strategies to wring every last dollar out of its most beloved pieces of intellectual property. Each week, we’ll look at the House of Mouse’s various sequels, prequels, spin-offs, and various misadventures, relegated from the silver screen to the small screen. Is there any artistic merit to be found? Or was each film mostly conceived as an excuse to print more money? Join me as we search for the answers from the wonderful world of Di$ney.
Why does this exist?
Listen: If you thought that Disney wouldn’t shell out a small handful of cash to churn out more talking-dog movies, you just haven’t been paying attention. The budget for Space Buddies was $9 million, and I can’t imagine the other two films were much more expensive in comparison (though Santa Paws features the biggest cast and the most sets). All three films were released within two years of each other, and the only reason for the delay with Santa Paws, the third film, was the holiday-timed release strategy.
What’s going on here?
Space is basically the same premise as Snow Buddies, except the Alaskan wilderness is swapped out for a space shuttle headed for the moon. But first they must stop at the International Space Station, where a Russian Diedrich Bader has been holed up with his dog for far too long. The film uses every conceivable shortcut to get around explaining how five puppies wouldn’t immediately be killed upon leaving the Earth’s atmosphere, including eye goggles that steer the ship, and spacesuits that conform to their bodies when they’re scanned by a futuristic doohickey. Yes, the puppies land their paws on the moon, though the scene where they put their helmets on is conspicuously absent. Yes, the CGI looks terrible. Yes, Budderball has to repair the ship and has to propel himself using his farts when the propulsion system fails. Yes, I loved every second of it.
Santa Buddies is the most forgettable of the three, if only because it’s the most “normal.” Puppy Paws, the son of Santa Paws, leaves the North Pole for the hometown of the Buddies, in the hopes that they will show him how to be a normal puppy. An extended montage takes up the second act where Puppy Paws goes to each of the Buddies individually for them to educate him. Meanwhile, Santa and Santa Paws search for Puppy Paws because not enough people believe in Christmas anymore. Christopher Lloyd sleepwalks his way through a role as the town’s dogcatcher and everyone learns the True Meaning of Christmas™.
Rest assured, we saved the best for last. One insane aspect of Santa Paws, of which there are many, is that it proceeds as if no other Christmas film has ever existed. Make a list of every single trope of the genre, and this film has it: lonely orphans, a childless couple inheriting a toy store, Santa getting lost in New York, a mean-spirited headmistress of an orphanage that hates Christmas. The list goes on. This is the film I dreaded most among the three, mostly because it’s the longest of them, and I had a blast. The film serves as a prequel to Santa Buddies, in that Santa Paws is still a puppy throughout the film. In what is easily the most bananas storytelling decision of this entire series, Santa Paws is given to Santa as a mannequin and is brought to life by Santa’s magic crystal, which loses its power when people stop believing in Christmas.
This leads to not only the best scene of this series so far but one of the best of any film I’ve seen all year. Will (Madison Pettis), one of the sad orphans, snuggles Santa Paws after Ms. Stout (Wendi McLendon-Covey) takes the crystal hanging around his neck. Unaware of its powers, she’s horrified to see him turned into a lifeless stuffed puppy. AND THEN Ms. Stout tosses the taxidermied canine into an incinerator! Reader, believe me when I tell you I was cackling like an insane person at this unintentional bit of hilarity. I would love to have been in the focus group room when Disney showed this scene to children – and their parents – to see their horrified reactions. Anyway, the dog and Christmas are saved and everyone learns the True Meaning of Christmas™.
How much of the original is preserved?
I’m confident that the Mouse House didn’t intend to reach the levels of bugnuts absurdity that I found throughout these films, but they stand out as an unexpected highlight in this series. Besides the bonkers script decisions, everyone (save the aforementioned Lloyd) dials up their performances so far beyond anything you’d expect from this kind of material. Bader gives his all as a lunatic cosmonaut clearly suffering from a bout of Space Madness. Bill Fagerbakke, primarily known as the voice of Patrick on SpongeBob SquarePants, provides his own weirdo energy as a nervous ferret-owning head of the space agency. McLendon-Covey is a hoot as the headmistress at the orphanage, whose hatred for Christmas and children is never explained. Bill Cobbs is underutilized but still gets the final line in Santa Paws. Danny Woodburn and Richard Kind appear in person and via voiceover, respectively, in Santa Buddies and Santa Paws.
Does this ruin the original film?
One thing we haven’t touched on with the Buddies franchise is something completely unique from Disney’s mainline ethos: the existence of religion. While no specific divinity is ever invoked, the final moment of Santa Buddies sees the town gathering together to sing “Silent Night.” And mentions are made in Space Buddies of prayers being offered for the stranded pups. Of course, Disney would never go so far as to favor one religion over the other, but the mere fact that series director Robert Vince managed to sneak even these fleeting moments into the films is worth noting.
I’m sure most normal people look at the task of watching more of these Buddies films with disdain. To be honest, I had put them off until the last minute for the same reason. Every single one of the entries we’ll cover until the end of this column will basically be variations on the same talking-animal theme, including three more Buddies films and one more Santa Paws sequel. But if the rest of them contain even a modest amount of the insanity on display in these films, it’ll be a good time indeed.
- Next Time: Sadly, Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2 isn’t the long-awaited Eddie Murphy / Taco Bell crossover event we’ve all been waiting for. Or is it???