Canines for Christmas
On the twelfth day of Christmas my parents gave to me…
If you love dogs and kids and feel nostalgic about Christmas, then a new movie based on a popular children’s book, The 12 Dogs of Christmas, just might make your tail wag.
At the Heartland Film Festival premiere of the film, I had the chance to speak with the Oscar-winning screenwriter/director Kieth Merrill, executive producer Ken Kragen, and actors Adam Hicks and Alisha Mullally (who play two of the children).
The book is strictly doggies and the song. The screenplay came about via an unheard of thirty-page treatment (typical length is just a few pages) by Steve Paul Leiva. Producer Ken Kragen, whose daughter Emma Kragen wrote the book when she was just seven years old, gave the treatment to Merrill. He wrote the script in two weeks.
The movie creates an entire story around the simple premise that dogs and Christmas go together. The film’s climax is a school Christmas presentation with kids singing and dogs everywhere. For you cat lovers out there, the very last refrain of the song ends with “a cat.”
To follow the classic Christmas song, the 12 dogs of Christmas actually translate into a very large number of tail-waggers (12 + 11 + 10 etc.). Merrill, who won his Academy Award for the documentary Great American Cowboy, admits that dealing with that many dogs was an experience he is not exactly eager to repeat. And he points out that there was only one truly trained dog (a poodle that remains in a doghouse for a lengthy scene).
The action is set in the 1930s during the Depression in the small town of Doverville. (They actually shot the film in Bethel, Maine.) Kids, dogs, and adult dog lovers have to overcome a town ordinance that outlaws any and all dogs within the city limits. The central character is a girl named Emma, played by Jordan-Claire Green (The School of Rock).
The role of Emma turns out to be especially interesting because the character, in the original screenplay, was a boy. Merrill says that he and Ken Kragen decided to switch the character to a girl when they found a young actress they really liked for the part. As it turned out, that actress did not take the role, but they decided to leave things reversed and eventually found Jordan-Claire Green. She did a good job.
In making that gender switch, Emma’s friend Mike (Adam Hicks) also underwent a gender reversal from the original supporting female character. Merrill found that this switch could be done with minimal revisions. He notes that had he written the script from the start with Emma as the lead character, he would have made her more of an overt tomboy. He likes the way it turned out, feeling there’s a slight edginess in places that otherwise might not have been there.
I like that the character of Emma is simply an intelligent, caring, determined person. While the movie is sentimental and features “cartoon” villains for the kiddies, it’s an enjoyable family film with a straightforward protagonist with whom girls and boys, kids and adults can identify.
One other interesting aspect of the film’s production is the crew. Kragen and Merrill had a very tight budget, and Merrill came up with an inspired idea. His son was a student at USC’s film school and he enlisted him in recruiting fellow students for a sizable chunk of the film’s crew including the director of photography.
The 12 Dogs of Christmas will be released on DVD November 1, 2005. Kragen points out that with the story already “pre-sold” through the book and tie-in merchandise, they are bypassing the expense of theatrical distribution and going straight to DVD (where films make most of their money).