This 1959 Disney classic ended up being one of the studio's most important movies

The Shaggy Dog may not get the credit but its success set the formula that would lead to Disney's big box office hits for years!
Walt Disney's World Premiere of "The Shaggy Dog" - Arrivals
Walt Disney's World Premiere of "The Shaggy Dog" - Arrivals / John Shearer/GettyImages

In the annals of Disney movies, a lot of classics stand out as game-changers. There’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Treasure Island, Mary Poppins, the various Touchstone movies, The Little Mermaid and more. 

They all paved the way for the huge success of Walt Disney and its power in movies. However, one movie released 65 years ago set a new tone for Disney, one that would pay dividends down the road. It’s not what most think of when they think of Disney mainstays but it set a formula that would give the company live-action success for years.

The Shaggy Dog.

Some may recall the title or the ill-fated 2006 remake. But the original remains a fun gem of the time while also creating the template that would be what most folks think of when it came to Disney family films and in many ways, still retained today.

The background of the Dog’s life

The Shaggy Dog had its roots in the works of Felix Salten, who had written Bambi which of course became a classic Disney animated film. Disney had bought the rights to several other Salten books, including The Hound of Florence but it was more holding the rights as he knew Bambi’s success would want other studios to adapt Salten’s works and Walt wanted that for himself.

The Hound of Florence, written in 1923, is the tale of Lukas, a young orphan who wishes to attend art school in Venice. A magic ring grants his wish but with a catch: For every day he’s a human, he has to spend another as a dog. The idea appealed to Walt and he pitched it to ABC as a TV show for his Wonderful World of Disney program.

When ABC turned it down, saying it sounded way too stupid, Walt, as he usually did, decided to hit back in a unique way by turning the project into a live-action movie. Keep in mind, at this point, Disney’s live-action slate had been adventures like Treasure Island or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with Old Yeller a drama. A live-action comedy was something else. 

As it happened, the timing was good as the late 1950s were the heyday of wild sci-fi B movies that were low-budget but had high returns at the box office. So Disney melded its charm with that trend, which led to success. 

The Shaggy Dog story

A quick recap: The movie focuses on Wilby Davis (Disney child star favorite Tommy Kirk), a would-be inventor who clashes with his father, Wilson (Fred McMurray), over his antics, like causing a hole in the roof with his toy rocket. Wilson is a mailman who (plot point!) hates dogs for constantly attacking him.

Wilby heads to the museum where we quickly see he’s got a crush on French exchange student Franseca. His frenemy Buzz feels the same as they both see Franseca has a soft spot for dogs. On a museum trip, Wilby meets up with eccentric Professor Plumcutt who talks of an ancient tribe who used shapeshifting as a weapon.

On the way out, Wilby accidentally bumps into a display case and a ring falls into his pants. At home, Wilby foolishly reads the inscription “In canis corpore transmuto",  which translates as "Into a dog's body I change.” Cue the goofy 1950s-style “special effects” as Wilby transforms into Franseca’s English sheepdog. He goes to Plumcutt, who somehow knew this was going to happen and tells Wilby to break the curse he has to perform a truly selfless act. 

Cue a score of antics as Wilby switches between boy and dog, often at the worst time and at one point his dad chases him at gunpoint. Between all that, Wilby also tries to use his new form to woo Franseca while he and Buzz also compete for Allison (Annette Funicello in her movie debut). There’s also a rare on-screen appearance by veteran voice actor Paul Frees as a psychiatrist examining Wilson after his claims his son was turned into a dog. Oh and on top of all that, Wilby stumbles onto a couple of spies trying to steal government secrets.

It all ends with Wilby not only stopping the spies but letting Wilson (who had discovered his secret) get the credit for it, thereby breaking the curse. He and Buzz make up although they’re dumped by both Franseca and Allison so a bit bittersweet ending. 

The Shaggy Dog’s amazing success

Tommy Kirk spoke for many in a 2006 interview on how “I've come to think that the film has one of the screwiest combinations of plot elements in any movie ever made. It has all the realistic elements of the Cold War -- Russian spies plotting against the government -- mixed in with a rivalry over Annette between two teenage boys, mixed in with a fantasy about a boy who turns into a dog because he encounters a ring from the Borgias!”

Walt Disney noted how even folks on the Disney lot didn’t seem to care about the movie with a budget of just over one million dollars. The production didn’t hit many stumbling blocks as Barton, the sheepdog playing Wilby, was good and even handled the odd special effects for Wilby “talking.”

So, with all that, it’s understandable why both rival studios and trade magazines were stunned when the movie became a monster hit. Its initial 1959 run ended with just under $13 million, which may seem low, except that it would be like $150 million today. It ended up as the second-highest-grossing movie of 1959 behind the Oscar-winning Ben-Hur

Surprisingly, Disney didn’t jump onto an instant sequel for the film. It took until 1976 for The Shaggy D.A. with Dean Jones as the adult Wilby (Kirk had retired from acting at this point) whose attempts to become District Attorney go awry when a mobster gets hold of the ring. 

1987’s The Return of the Shaggy Dog was broadcast as a TV movie for ABC. A 1994 ABC remake had the twist that Franseca’s dad was a jewel thief trying to use the dog Wilby for a theft. A 2006 remake mixed the first two movies together with Tim Allen as a dog-hating D.A. transformed by a lab experiment into a dog that lacked the original’s charm.

Why The Shaggy Dog matters

The original movie was not just a box office hit for Disney. It also created the formula that would become the backbone of the studio’s live-action division, what Leonard Maltin referred to as “gimmick comedies” or “magical realism,” to use Walt’s term. 

These were films with a fun setup that often mixed a sci-fi or magical element with relatable issues. In the case of The Shaggy Dog, besides Wilby’s transformations, there’s also coming to grips with his dad’s problems too. That leads to the surprisingly warm scene of them overcoming it, even with Wilby in dog form. 

Another factor was Disney realizing that rather than reaching out to regular movie actors who would demand high salaries, they could land TV stars who could work in a movie on a summer break, be familiar to mainstream audiences but not famous enough to demand a high salary. They also wouldn't merit above-the-top billing, so the focus was more on the movie than the actors. That worked well for McMurray, who would land the hit sitcom My Three Sons a year later and balance it with other Disney films.

The formula came to the forefront in the 1960s, with Disney using that for some hits like Pollyanna, Swiss Family Robinson, The Parent Trap, and McMurray’s other Disney classic, The Absent-Minded Professor. Funicello would also become a mainstay in these with That Darn Cat, The Monkey’s Uncle and more. 

What really made the formula famous was after Walt’s passing in 1966 as the studio moved into more such comedies such as Kurt Russell’s Dexter Riley trilogy, The Gnome-Mobile, Snowball Express, Charley and the Angel and the Herbie movies. While that petered out by the end of the 1970s, it was still mostly a success for Disney, low-budget offbeat comedies that may not have been mega-hits but still turned a decent profit. 

Thus, The Shaggy Dog ended up being one of the most important movies in Disney’s entire history that proved a clever concept, some offbeat comedy and just the right stars and low budget was a successful template. That’s something Disney could use these days as the approach for an offbeat family film can still appeal today.

The Shaggy Dog streaming on Disney+.