This week Pixar debuts “Dug Days” on Disney+: five animated shorts reuniting “Up’s” grumpy widower Carl with his excitable Golden Retriever, Dug, who can talk with a voice-activated collar. It’s a warm and funny series of misadventures for Dug (voiced by creator/director Bob Peterson), made all the more noteworthy as a result of last week’s passing of 91-year-old Ed Asner. He voiced Carl with his typical gruff exterior to hide a more affable nature. Yet it’s especially sweet to see Asner end his career on a high note in “Dug Days,” with Carl settling into a more relaxed comfort zone.
“Carl is laid back and at peace,” Peterson said. “You can tell the way he stands and the fact that he doesn’t wear his jacket; he’s doing woodworking now. I think his adventure was successful.”
But while Carl is content to relax or build a birdhouse or enjoy the fireworks, Dug can’t help exploring and getting into mischief. In “Squirrel,” he meets his match in his furry nemesis while looking after the birdhouse; in “Puppies,” he bites off more than he can chew while babysitting a neighbor’s canine pets; “Flowers” sees his fear of fireworks lead to a wild dream; “Smell” finds Dug unable to contain the thrill of new nasal discoveries; and, in “Science,” Wilderness Explorer Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai using deleted recordings from “Up”) returns to help Dug communicate with the Squirrel and birds by making their own voice-activated collars.
“I wanted to do little slices of life, but we base it on Dug, and this gave us the opportunity to put our POV inside Dug’s nose and his head,” said Peterson, who based the character on some of his own canine experiences. “Dug is so universal because so many people love their pets that we thought he might make a good subject for these series of shorts. In the old days, we would’ve done one short or a feature, but now we’re able to do a series. So that let me eventually realize that we had facets of a dog’s life: territoriality, getting through fear, being paternal.”
“Up” director and Pixar chief creative officer Pete Docter served as executive producer. His role was making sure they didn’t veer too far from his beloved Oscar winner. “He gave us notes about trimming as well as music notes [from composers Andrea Datzman & Curtis Green],” Peterson said. “‘This doesn’t play well,’ ‘this could be funnier.’ He was fairly pleased early on with most of these, which made me feel good because this was our baby long ago. I wanted to do right by ‘Up.'”
At the same time, “Dug Days” provided Pixar the opportunity to do its own canine answer to Disney’s Pluto shorts. Yet right from the start, it takes an unexpected turn in “Squirrel,” after Carl builds the birdhouse and asks Dug to make sure the birds get fed while he takes a nap. “Then the squirrel shows up and it became about territoriality,” Peterson said. “We even debated showing the squirrel because it’s so much fun for Dug to look off screen and say, ‘Squirrel!’ But including the squirrel let us go to a place that we hadn’t been in ‘Up,’ and the squirrel is so fast moving that it let us do some fun animation, like putting his head in Dug’s mouth.”
The most imaginative short, “Flowers,” allowed Pixar to imbue Dug’s dream with a “Fantasia”-like vibe. “My dog was deathly afraid of fireworks, and it was tricky because I didn’t want to have schadenfreude for Dug’s fear, so it was important in Dug’s mind that he was trying to save Carl,” said Peterson. “But along the way, I was feeling we were a little too earth bound, and I wanted to go somewhere totally different and crazy.”
“What about a dog dream? What would you populate it with? I wrote a base version and it evolved into leaving earth and going into the solar system and flowers going after him. But I didn’t want it to have a linearity to it. The lighting guys even suggested a UV look. We debated that too. It glowed and you had to make that leap because a dog wouldn’t be able to see those colors. It was different lighting for us and a little more scary.”
In an earlier version, Carl was subsumed by the flowers and dragged down. But Peterson and his team thought it was too disturbing, so they had Carl sing his school song and get shot up as fireworks. The movement, though, was very carefully choreographed in an ode to Disneyland. “We moved left to right instead of in and out, keeping to the nature of how Dug moves along,” Peterson said. “I kept talking about it as if it was a theme park ride or Carousel of Progress.”
“Dug Days” currently streams on Disney+.