Justin Turcotte’s documentary feature film, Unleashed! A Dog Dancing Story, takes a look at the art of canine freestyle dancing, and one man’s dream to take it to the next level. Former figure skater and dancer Ray Underwood has been at the forefront of this activity, choreographing and performing various dances for dog and dog owner to do together as a singular performance piece as part of his dog dancing club, Paws2Dance. His ambitions are greater, however, as he dreams of creating and directing an entire stage play of dancing dogs and their owners, complete with original story and complex choreography.
Considering his son is a kite-flying enthusiast and prodigy, it only makes sense to marry the two worlds of freestyle dog dancing and kite-flying into a Cirque du Soleil-esque experience for all to enjoy. Ray, with the help of his canine freestyle dancing club and his son’s kite-flying aficionado friends, sets out to put on the show, with the documentary camera following all the preparations through to the aftermath of the main event.
Whereas you can see how it would be easy to think of something like this as a mockumentary in the mode of Christopher Guest’s Best in Show (the idea of dancing dogs and kite flyers on stage together certainly could lend itself to hilarity), the film itself does not breed this comparison quite so readily. Ray may have what others could see as a strange passion, choreographing dog and owner dances, but it makes sense when you consider his background as a former figure skater and dancer. In other words, the idea may seem strange, but those involved are not a collection of quirky characters built for mocking.
In that way, it’s not a film that lends itself to much comedy, and its execution doesn’t push that envelope to judge or comment on those onscreen either. Instead, we see the participants prepare for their big show, and we learn the stories of a select few owner/dog combos (which causes more than a little heartstring-tugging), and it’s all very normal. This could be a movie about any acting or dance troupe trying to prepare for a big show, and it’d have a similar vibe; a minor setback here, stress there, but in the end it all comes together.
Which is great for documenting the reality, but not so much for creating a compelling dramatic narrative that a film audience can get wrapped up in. Because everything comes across so routine, it becomes repetitious drudgery in many ways, which made me wonder why this had to be a feature film at all. Because as a short film, with some brief history that then goes into the preparation for the show and final showcase of the main event, this could be a wonderful cinematic experience.
We don’t need to see all the practices, or hear about every little setback, because they ultimately don’t amount to much. From the minute you hear what the show is going to be, dancing dogs dueling with kite flyers, you want to see the show. The bulk of the film’s middle does not increase that excitement, or even sustain it. By the time you do see snippets of the final show, its impact isn’t as great as you’d hoped it would be, because you had so much time to lose interest. On top of that, because you only see bits and pieces of the final show, the payoff doesn’t match the lengthy build-up.
That said, there are elements that work in that middle, and I can understand why the filmmakers wouldn’t want to let certain storylines go. As I said,there are moments that genuinely tug at the heartstrings, in particular as one owner deals with the deteriorating health of her dog. These moments put soul into the endeavor, and I understand why they’re necessary for this tale, as it currently exists.
At the same time, though, the setup of the film makes you crave a certain payoff, and you wait far too long to get it. Ultimately I think the film undercuts its own effectiveness by going the feature film route when it could instead be reimagined as a stellar ten to fifteen minute short film, with a pace that keeps interest from start to glorious finish. I think the subject matter was initially interesting enough, but it doesn’t sustain itself as is.
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