Lassie (2006)

Reviewed By Lybarger
Posted 09/01/06 15:26:47

"Could you do the Queen of the Collies a little justice, please?"
3 stars (Average)

With the new Lassie movie currently gracing theaters, it’s best to forget what you might remember from more recent flicks like “The Magic of Lassie” or that long-running TV series with that always began with that annoying little boy calling her name. Writer-director Charles Sturridge is taking the world’s most famous fictional dog (sorry, Benji) back to her creator Eric Knight’s Yorkshire roots. It’s too bad that dog whisperer Cesar Milan wasn’t available to get the plot to heel.

The new film is reminiscent of a hyperactive lap dog. It’s often so cute that you can’t help but love it, but its relentless displays of affection (lots of barking, leaping and licking) become more annoying than endearing.

Sturridge has assembled an impressive cast of human performers who do hold their own against the canine star, and the locations (the Isle of Man, Scotland and Ireland) are breathtaking.

Sadly, his script is a spotty and episodic. At times, it’s hard to determine what sort of audience he’s trying to reach. The new movie opens with a batty local duke (Peter O’Toole) leading a fox hunt through a depressed Yorkshire mining town on the eve of World War II.

Lucky for the fox, it runs into Lassie, who manages to help the critter run into the mine. The miners don’t think much of fox hunting so they urinate to keep the hounds away from the scent of the poor beast.

No, that wasn’t a typo graphical error. You really get to see the streams of human waste. Yes, little kids love scatological humor, but it’s not like you have to encourage it.

Nobody owns Lassie, but she does live with a struggling family and has a special affection for their son Joe (Jonathan Mason). That affection doesn’t bring any food to the table, so the unemployed father (John Lynch) and stubborn mother (Samantha Morton) have no choice but to sell Lassie to the Duke.

The only problem with this transaction is that it breaks young Joe’s heart, and Lassie repeatedly escapes her captors’ kennels to return to the boy. When the Duke carts her off to Scotland, you get the strange feeling that boy and dog won’t be parted long.

It was hard not to expect something from Sturridge because he’s helmed a terrific television adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels that had dazzling visuals but still retained the original story’s corrosive satire.

It’s almost as if the story of a dog traversing the countryside trying to locate the boy who loves her was too simple for Sturridge’s tastes, so he adds some other elements that seem downright weird.

Somehow the Loch Ness Monster and a midget puppeteer (played nicely as always by American actor Peter Dinklage) work into the mix. Lassie’s time with Dinklage’s character might have even been an interesting film on its own.

Some prominent thespians like Emmy-winner Kelly Macdonald and Edward Fox are stuck with tiny roles that don’t quite do them justice.

I’m curious to know how the level of violence in the film went over on the other side of the Atlantic. I counted two scenes where a dog was beaten by bad guys, and these scenes, while not graphic, seem out of place in a film intended for kids, especially younger ones.

Before I started to lose hope in the film, the surprisingly expressive dogs and Peter O’Toole managed to get it back on track. It is fun to watch O’Toole as an upper class twit who could learn a bit from his granddaughter (Hester Odgers).

As with the aforementioned lap dog, the new “Lassie” is at its most enjoyable when it calms down and sits still. Despite the time that has passed, Lassie can still hold the screen on her own despite Sturridge’s distractions.

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