A popular bumper sticker reads, "I want to be the man my dog thinks I am."
It happens all the time—a dog waits outside the café or the grocery store, straining at his leash, or shoving his nose against the car window, waiting in dutiful vigilance until his master emerges. And then, barking! Tail wagging! And a good deal of scampering about! It's as if this reunion merits some kind of celebration. It doesn't matter if you're grumpy or irritable—your dog is happy to see you. That kind of unconditional love can melt even the toughest heart.
And it's that kind of unconditional love that has made Lassie the world's most famous and beloved dog. Well, that, her colorful coat, and her tenderness toward the boy she loves.
If you think I'm referring to Jeff or Timmy, then you must be thinking of the boys on the Lassie television series that ran between 195474. No, I'm talking about the nine-year-old boy named Joe Carraclough, who is Lassie's precious friend in the latest big screen adaptation.
Director Charles Sturridge has brought Lassie back to the screen, and it's likely that many moviegoers are rolling their eyes, writing it off as just another disposable kid-flick about wisecracking critters.
But think again. Lassie isn't just better than the other films currently being marketed for all ages. It's a rare work of substance, simplicity, and grace that deserves to be mentioned among the best features crafted for younger viewers in the last twenty years, including Mike Newell's Into the West, John Sayles' The Secret of Roan Inish, Alfonso Cuarón's A Little Princess, Agnieszka Holland's The Secret Garden, Carroll Ballard's Duma, and Andrew Davis's Holes. Some critics are using the word "classic" even though it's only just arrived.
Sticking to the basic plot of Eric Wright's 1940 novel Lassie Come Home, this film returns Lassie to the context of the original novel, where her adventure leads her from the home of the Carraclough family in a Yorkshire mining town to a vast estate in Scotland.
Sam (John Lynch of The Secret of Roan Inish) and his wife Sarah (Samantha Morton of In America and Minority Report) are raising their son, little button-eyed Joe (Jonathan Mason), with what meager funds Sam earns at coal mining. But when the mine closes, they face grim realities. How can they afford to keep a collie around when they can't pay their bills?
You can see where this is going. Cilla (Hester Odgers), granddaughter of the cantankerous Duke of Rudling, discovers Lassie on the street. The Duke (Peter O'Toole, in a grand performance of wit and dignity) immediately praises her "good eye" and declares that he wants the dog to join his collection. His offer is irresistible to the Carracloughs, who need money so they can keep food on the table.
No sooner has Lassie been penned into her new home on the Duke's palatial property than she breaks free and starts running back to the Carracloughs. And it happens several times. Lassie's devotion to Joe is indefatigable. She'll find a way to get home no matter how hard the Duke's fumbling, bumbling dog keeper Hynes (Steve Pemberton) works to keep her confined.
The film opens with Lassie's smart disruption of a fox hunt, helping the poor frightened prey escape disgruntled hunters. This sets up the central conflict of the film: dedicated, virtuous working-class people struggling to cope with the presumptuous and insensitive rich.
But Sturridge is too thoughtful to settle for caricatures. The Duke is a volatile, complicated personality who knows and feels more than he lets on. Likewise, the Carracloughs accept their place in the world, and the movie does not incline us toward hating people with wealth. It only observes that riches tend to inspire pride and self-absorption in those who lack a generous spirit. O'Toole, Lynch, and Morton give intuitive, subtle performances as if acting in an Oscar-caliber drama. How rare that a film designed for children portrays grownups as intelligent people worthy of respect!
Colorful supporting characters give the film depth and humor. The radiant Kelly Macdonald (The Girl in the Café, Gosford Park) makes a brief appearance as the romantic and big-hearted Jeannie. And I'd like to see a whole movie about Rowlie, the itinerant puppeteer played by Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent), who recognizes Lassie's potential while she staggers, weathered and weary, down the long road home.
Howard Atherton's lush, extravagant cinematography celebrates Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man, soaring over the green swaths, rocky ridges, and foggy woods—and over a certain legendary loch—much as Peter Jackson's adaptations carried us through the riches of New Zealand.
Even as it scores with technical excellence, Lassie skillfully dodges many of pitfalls common to movies about animals. Sturridge knows better than to give Lassie a celebrity voice, thank goodness. Lassie's strength is in her silent faithfulness and determination. She remains, in fact, a dog—not a cartoonish creature with a human personality.
And even better—she's not animated. She's real. The Lassie movies have always used dogs directly descended from the original Lassie, who starred in the original film back in 1943. And they're beautiful dogs. No matter how impressive CGI becomes, there is a particular awe that viewers feel when they're looking at a living, breathing animal, and the bundle of collies who take turns playing Joe's best friend earn our affection without any animated advantage.
Lassie is also enhanced by Adrian Johnston's delicate soundtrack, which lets important scenes play out quietly. This lets us respond with our own personal and spontaneous emotions; we're not reacting to belligerent musical cues.
Further, Lassie succeeds because the filmmakers don't sugar-coat their characters' lives. Bad things happen, and death is a real possibility. More than one animal is beaten. Lassie's ordeal is long and painful. The filmmakers developed her character with such care that I found her "passion" more convincing and moving than that of the animated Aslan in Andrew Adamson's Narnia movie (which abbreviated character development to make extra time for bloated battle scenes).
Finally—and perhaps most importantly—this film refuses to insult the intelligence of its young viewers. It flatters them with honest depictions of mature grownups, intelligent children, and real hardships.
And the story is strong enough to keep the grownups engaged too; it doesn't try to buy their attention with innuendoes and pop-culture references (as if that's what adults really want). While it does have scenes of outrageous whimsy—Lassie's adventure in a courtroom, her spectacular escape from the pound—it remains grounded in a specific time and place, giving us some sense of life in Scotland during the build-up to World War II.
In fact, the film's only dissonant element is its one-note bad guy, who seems drawn from the box of stock Disney villains, right down to the trousers that fall down around his ankles.
All in all, Lassie is a small wonder, providing a classy conclusion to a relatively disappointing summer movie season. It might just inspire some of us to become as respectful as our dogs think we are—and it might even challenge us to prove that dogs aren't the only creatures God made capable of steadfast, longsuffering, and unconditional love.Discussion starters
- Like all of God's creation, the animals he made exhibit aspects of his glory. What virtues can we see evident in dogs? Discuss other animals and the impressive qualities they demonstrate.
- What are the differences between the Carraclough family and the Duke's family? Who has learned a lesson by the end of this story, and what is that lesson
- We can learn a lot about people by the way they treat animals. Discuss what the different characters—Joe, Cilla, the Duke, Hynes, Jeanie—reveal about themselves in their treatment of Lassie.
- Did the Carracloughs do the right thing when they sold Lassie to pay the bills? What should loving parents do in that situation?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
This film has a PG rating due to scenes in which people mistreat Lassie (one whips her with a belt) and other animals. Some particularly cruel characters bring about the death of one poor creature. Parents should be prepared to comfort small children.
Photos © Copyright Warner Brothers
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 09/07/06
Most live-action movies about animals end up as disposable, mind-numbing entertainment full of buffoonish human characters, unnerving CGI, and poop jokes. And the animals usually sound suspiciously like overpaid celebrities.
But critics are responding to the latest remake of Lassie with praise and enthusiasm … in their own famously pun-oriented fashion. You won't have to look far to find quotes like "Bow WOW!" and similar canine kudos.
Let's drop the puns and say it straight: This feature by Charles Sturridge will delight viewers of all ages, and is bound to become a classic.
Lassie isn't just better than the other films currently being marketed for all ages. It's a rare work of substance, simplicity, and grace that deserves to be mentioned among the best features crafted for younger viewers in the last twenty years, including Mike Newell's Into the West, John Sayles' The Secret of Roan Inish, Alfonso Cuarón's A Little Princess, Agnieszka Holland's The Secret Garden, Carroll Ballard's Duma, and Andrew Davis's Holes. Sticking to the basic plot of Eric Wright's 1940 novel Lassie Come Home, this film returns Lassie to her native Britain, where she belongs to the Carraclough family in a Yorkshire mining town.
Sturridge has made one of those rare family films that refuses to insult the intelligence of its young viewers. It flatters them with honest depictions of mature grownups, intelligent children, and real hardships. What is more, it does not use cheap tactics in persuading adult viewers to pay attention. It stands apart from the typical, frantic family features that stoop to including sexual innuendo and pop-culture references (as if that's what adults really want).
While it does have scenes of outrageous whimsy—Lassie's adventure in a courtroom, her spectacular escape from the pound—it remains grounded in a specific time and place, giving us some sense of life in Britain during the build-up to World War II.
All in all, Lassie is a small wonder, providing a classy conclusion to a relatively disappointing summer movie season. It might just inspire some of us to become as respectful as our dogs think we are—and it might even challenge us to prove that dogs aren't the only creatures God made capable of steadfast, longsuffering, and unconditional love.
My full review is at Christianity Today Movies.
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) calls it "an exceedingly handsome adaptation." And he agrees that the scenery is "breathtaking, and the plot is ever appealing, making this highly recommendable family viewing."
Mainstream critics are similarly surprised and pleased to welcome Lassie home.from Film Forum, 09/21/06
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) calls it "a lovely, literate new adaptation" and "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. … 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."