Man, I can’t believe Dog City is on DVD.
With a release date of June 8, Dog City: The Movie is the latest selection from the “Hey, I Bet You Never Thought We’d Release THIS on DVD” departments of the Jim Henson Company and Lionsgate. Directed by Jim himself, it originally aired on TV as part of The Jim Henson Hour in 1989, but for American fans, it’s been obtainable only through tape trades with fellow Muppet geeks, or by moving to the UK, where a DVD was released in 2005.
Even after they announced the Song of the Cloud Forest DVD back in May, I never would have guessed this one would follow, if only because it features Rowlf the Dog in a fairly prominent role, and Rowlf is now owned by Disney’s Muppets Studios, while the special is still owned by Henson. Maybe they worked something out, or maybe the Hensons are just hoping Disney won’t notice. I promise I won’t say anything if you won’t!
So anyway, here’s this DVD. My geekout starts as soon as the disc menu comes up with the Jim Henson Hour theme song in the background, and continues seconds later when the special starts and IT LOOKS SO MUCH BETTER THAN MY THIRD-GENERATION VHS COPY. If I were more technically inclined I might be able to point out problems with the transfer or whatever, but to my eyeballs, it looks great. It’s a shame dogs are color blind so they can’t fully enjoy it… You can see everything! All the dogs and cars and hats and things!
And this is a special where you want to see everything, because as soon as the opening number starts you can tell Jim Henson did not cut a single corner… The puppets look great, the period costumes look great, and the sets are fantastic. They completely created a whole film noir city here on a Muppet-sized scale, and I keep marveling at the fact that this was produced as just one episode of a weekly television show.
And now that I’m five paragraphs in, how about the plot? The story opens in a bar called the Doghouse. Rowlf shows up pretty early, providing exposition and commentary for the story, which takes place in the titular Dog City in the 1930s– or “13,510 in dog years,” as Rowlf points out. Our hero is Ace Yu, an idealistic German shepherd played by Kevin Clash, with a name that’s blatantly calculated to provide silly Abbot & Costello-type confusion… He tells the bartender “I’m Yu,” and the bartender says, “You’re me?” and Ace says,”No, Yu. Y-U,” and the bartender says, “Why, I oughtta–” and so on.
And yes, a lot of these jokes are pretty stupid, but Jim and his writer Tim Burns completely own it — Rowlf comes right out and admits that Ace Yu is a “cheap joke name” — and they keep them coming at such a pace that you still laugh when a character exclaims “Oh my dog!” for the third time.
If you don’t think Ace Yu is a funny name, you might want to turn away now, because next we meet the bad guy, whose name is Bugsy Them. He’s a gangster bulldog played by Jim Henson, and he has a voice that really doesn’t sound like any other major character Jim ever did. Them loves senseless violence, and anything else that’s senseless. (I’m surprised there’s not a joke about him going into politics). He has three henchmen and a moll named Miss Belle, who has a line at one point about “doing tricks on street corners” that I definitely wouldn’t have understood if I had seen this when it first aired and I was 8 years old.
Ace has just inherited the Doghouse from his uncle, and he wants to use the profits to open a “quarterway house” for orphans. (This special never passes up a chance for a silly pun.) Bugsy shows up at the bar and demands that Ace pay him off like all the other business owners in town, but Ace refuses. And so we have our conflict. There’s also a love interest, of course, in the form of Colleen Barker, a collie who helps Ace take down Bugsy and sings the terrific song “Dog’s Best Friend.”
Back when I got my VHS copy-copy-copy of Dog City, I showed it to a friend of mine who was a moderate-level Muppet fan, but despite my enthusiasm, he was unimpressed. “It’s nothing but a bunch of dog jokes,” he said. “Exactly!” I barked. The sheer volume of dog jokes is striking; it’s as if Tim Burns started by writing out a list of EVERYTHING ABOUT DOGS THAT COULD POSSIBLY BE FUNNY, and then worked every item into the script. And he still managed to tell a perfectly passable story with entertaining characters.
You know how people always talk about how great Jim Henson was at making stuff that appealed to adults and kids equally? This is a perfect example of that. Kids won’t get all the wordplay, and they won’t be familiar with all the film noir tropes, but it doesn’t matter because it’s a funny story about talking dogs. Plus, the dogs are seen drinking, smoking, and using firearms, and children love that stuff!
As with most of the recent Henson releases, there’s not much in the way of extras. There are a few behind-the-scenes photos and some pre-production character sketches, set to an endlessly repeating loop of the Jim Henson Hour theme, and… well, that’s it. I knew going in that the disc wouldn’t include the original Jim intro or the MuppeTelevision segments with Kermit and the gang that led up to the “movie,” but I was hoping they might give us the episode’s brief (fake) “behind the scenes” bit starring a Muppet stunt double. It would have made a nice extra, but nope, this Dog City DVD is a bare-bones release. Hey look, I can do it too!
I guess we won’t be seeing any more JHH shows on DVD. Disney probably owns Miss Piggy’s Hollywood, and nobody in the world would ever buy Lighthouse Island or Living with Dinosaurs. But hey, we got Dog City, and that’s cause for celebration. Kibbles and Bits for everyone!
Click here to chase a cat to the Tough Pigs forum, where you and I can talk about Yu and Them.
by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com