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‘Snow Dogs’ is nothing to drool over

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SNOW DOGS — ** — Cuba Gooding Jr., James Coburn, Nichelle Nichols, Joanna Bacalso, Sisqo; rated PG (mild vulgarity, slapstick violence); see the "On the Screen" column on Page W2 for complete listing of local theaters.

The TV commercials for "Snow Dogs" make it look as if the dogs have the wondrous ability to talk all the time. Fluffy Siberian huskies sit in lounge chairs on the beach, wearing sunglasses and cradling cool drinks in their paws, laughing and chatting away happily.

Don't be fooled! Because disappointingly, the dogs of "Snow Dogs" only talk in one scene.

And that one scene — in which Cuba Gooding Jr.'s character is trapped in an Alaskan snowstorm and imagines in a fever-induced hallucination that they're speaking to him — is the best one of all because it has a weird edge to it.

The rest of "Snow Dogs" is lightweight and predictable. And the dogs are just too cute, along with their animatronic counterparts, which are so expressive they're spooky.

Miami dentist Ted Brooks (Gooding) doesn't exactly warm to them at first. He finds out he was adopted when his real mother, who piloted Alaskan sled dogs to championships, dies, and he schleps to the small town of Tolketna — where the locals are flannel-wearing, heavily bearded stereotypes with bad teeth — to inventory and sell her belongings.

That includes her valuable pack of Siberian huskies — Demon, Scooper, Diesel, Mack, Duchess, Yodel and Sniff — and a sweet border collie named Nana.

Ted's arrival provides lots of wacky fish-out-of-water situations; he falls on his back on the ice, skids face-first down a snow-covered mountain, marvels at the lack of indoor plumbing. Gooding does it all with his trademark ingratiating style.

But before he even leaves his adoptive mother (Nichelle Nichols) and brother (R&B singer Sisqo) behind in Miami, it's obvious where Ted will end up by the time the closing credits roll.

That's because he falls in love in Tolketna with Barb (former model Joanna Bacalso, reading her lines as if she's seen them for the first time), the beautiful bartender who just happens to be single — like she was just waiting all this time for Ted to show up.

Ted's real dad, a gruff sled-dog racer named Thunder Jack (James Coburn), is also in Tolketna. He doesn't care about his newfound offspring — he wants those dogs for himself, but Ted won't let him have them. With the Arctic Challenge coming up, Ted would rather learn to race them himself, which sets Gooding up for more predictable pratfalls.

All these loose ends of course are tied up neatly in the end, but not before one slightly scary cliffhanger scene in which the dogs — and father and son — must work together to save the day.

"Snow Dogs" is rated PG for mild crude humor and slapstick violence. Running time: 99 minutes.