In the beginning, Lassie was just a dog — loyal and stalwart to be sure, but an animal guided by instinct, not a Hollywood wonder-dog with higher reasoning skills. She lived in Great Britain, not the American Midwest, where she was the pride and joy of a proud but impoverished Yorkshire family, at least until hard times forced them to sell her to a local nobleman.
Lassie’s original claim to fame was not rescuing her young owner, Joe Carraclough, from one scrape or another, but making an incredible 500-mile trek across Scotland and England to return to him. The title of Eric Knight’s best-selling 1940 book was Lassie Come-Home, and the similarly titled 1943 Hollywood adaptation, featuring a very young Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor, was faithful to the story’s roots.
But then came the American 1950s television series, and Lassie became the exaggerated figure endlessly spoofed in popular culture, unfailingly running for help whenever Jeff or Timmy was in trouble, and attracting attention with meaningful barks and looks until someone inevitably said, “I think she’s trying to tell us something!”
At least, that’s my mental picture of the TV series, though never having seen it I have that picture only by cultural osmosis. I didn’t see the 1943 film until the last year or two, either — but I did read the Eric Knight book as a boy, so to me Lassie has always been the dog who came home.
Now, thanks to a lovely, literate new adaptation from writer-director Charles Sturridge, Lassie comes home again.
Young Joe Carraclough (Jonathan Mason) doesn’t fall into wells or get lost in caves. The main crisis in his young life, other than getting his palms slapped at school for inattention, is losing his beloved dog when his parents (John Lynch and Samantha Morton) make the painful decision to sell her.
Nor does Lassie go around saving wild animals, fighting poachers or performing other feats of canine super-heroics — though she does prove remarkably adept at escaping from the duke of Rudling (Peter O’Toole) and his cruel handler Hynes (Steve Pemberton), as well as assorted bobbies, bailiffs and animal control professionals. Like the title characters of such superior Hollywood dog stories as Shiloh and Because of Winn-Dixie, Lassie is a dog again.
Sturridge’s filmography, mostly TV fare, is mixed, but his better instincts are on display here: This feels like the work of the director of the well-regarded “Brideshead Revisited” of a quarter century ago, not the dodgy decade-old Hallmark “Gulliver’s Travels.” Even in comic moments that might seem like typical Disney fodder, such as a villain winding up with his pants around his ankles or Lassie taking the stand in a courtroom, Sturridge manages to keep the tone wry rather than slapstick.
The film opens on a risky note, with a fox-hunt sequence that establishes the story’s class-system backdrop as well as the theme of animal cruelty. As the chase proceeds, the duke (Peter O’Toole) and his entourage heedlessly pursue their quarry from the countryside through the streets of a nearby town and finally into a coal mine, where the animal has literally gone to ground to escape the baying hounds. The miners, siding sympathetically with the working-class beast over its aristocratic pursuers, take an earthy approach to throwing the hounds off the scent, urinating on the mine floor.
But Sturridge hasn’t vulgarized Knight’s story. Luminously photographed and defiantly old-fashioned, Lassie is classy, bearing comparison, as Jeff Overstreet (Christianity Today Movies) notes, to such artful family films as Cuarón’s A Little Princess and Holland’s The Secret Garden.
Lassie is a rare family film that knows that kids live in a grown-up world, that they are not isolated from such realities as unemployment or war, and can relate to the problems of adult characters as well as those of children and animals.
When the Carracloughs are forced to sell Lassie to the duke, it’s not just young Joe’s sorrow that matters, but also that of his parents — and not only at losing the dog, but at not being able to give their son the one thing he wants more than anything. In a low-key scene that is among the film’s best, as Joe lies disconsolate on his bed, his mother tries to comfort him, encouraging him to be grateful for the privilege of having raised a dog like Lassie and owned her even for a time. Her words are as wise and thoughtful as the father’s speech at the end of Old Yeller, but less forced. In this brief, quiet scene is more humanity than in whole shelves of family films at the corner video store.
Like Joe’s parents, the duke is portrayed with more texture and nuance than the stereotyped villain one would expect in a character who makes off with a boy’s beloved pet — though the villain role is still present in the figure of Hynes. O’Toole and Morton, especially, add a great deal to the film, along with Peter Dinklage as Rowlie, a dwarfish Gypsy who befriends Lassie on the road.
The film is not without flaws. There are a couple of lapses into preachiness regarding animal cruelty, and probably a scene or two too many of Lassie dodging bumbling pursuers. Whether for thematic reasons or to fill out the running time, Sturridge expands the role of the duke’s young granddaughter (Hester Odgers) beyond the point of plot relevance, adding scenes set at a boarding school that contribute nothing to the story. And a jokey cameo by the Loch Ness monster fleetingly brings the film to a screeching halt.
Curiously, although Lassie doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of animal suffering and even death, it avoids the question of Lassie’s diet on her 500-mile trek. A less notable canine survival story earlier this year, Eight Below, was a bit more frank on this point, depicting a team of sled dogs abandoned in the Antarctic preying on gulls. Knight’s novel likewise depicts Lassie catching and eating rabbits, but Sturridge steers clear of this; the only food we see Lassie eat on the way is a meal given to her by Rowlie.
Yet like Lassie’s own journey, by the end of the film there’s no question that the trip is worth making. Lassie is a superior example of what family entertainment could be if it weren’t usually aimed at the lowest common denominator. A couple of weeks after a dumbed-down, updated adaptation like How to Eat Fried Worms, it’s heartening to see a film for family audiences aim so high and achieve so much.
If Snow Dogs is a fairly typical example of the conventional Hollywood idea of a live-action family film, Eight Below is a typical example of a new trend in family films that includes National Treasure, Hidalgo, Two Brothers, Fantastic Four and The Legend of Zorro. This is a good thing, but not yet good enough.
Faithfully adapted from the popular Newbery Honor novel by Kate DiCamillo, Because of Winn-Dixie is a good family film frequently verging on being an excellent one, and is quite a bit better than the dog-movie clichés suggested by the trailers.
"It’s not just a dog story," writes Annie Dingus in Texas Monthly, "it’s a rite of passage for American children." She is right. "Who saw Old Yeller?" Bill Murray asks a bunch of American soldiers in Stripes, trying to define our national spirit. "Who cried when Old Yeller got shot at the end? Nobody cried when Old Yeller got shot? I’m sure. I cried my eyes out!" And on NBC’s "Friends," ditsy Phoebe had a sudden unpleasant revelation as she realized that all her life her parents had always turned off the film before the climax, sparing her the film’s heartbreak — but also its life-affirming wisdom.
The obstacle to this duty, of course, is that Joe’s father Sam (Donald Crisp) is eventually forced out of financial necessity to sell Lassie to the wealthy Duke of Rudling (Nigel Bruce). However, Lassie twice escapes from the the duke’s disagreeable handler Hynes (J. Patrick O’Malley) in order to keep her appointment with Joe, and eventually the duke takes Lassie to an estate in Scotland, over a thousand miles from her home.
Benji Off the Leash is undoubtedly the first dog movie ever made that thinks that a happy ending for a boy and his dog is not for the boy to get to keep the dog, but for the dog to go off to Hollywood to make a motion picture.
Annaud’s skill and subtlety elevate what is essentially a simple, fable-like throwback to the sort of live-action feature Disney used to make in the 1950s.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.